Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is blaming growing pains in a minority legislature for the nasty debate surrounding his government's budget bill, and is vowing to do a better job of reaching out to the opposition.
"We've all been spoiled with strong majorities," Mr. McGuinty said on Wednesday after third and final reading of the budget bill. He himself enjoyed eight years of back-to-back majorities until the election last fall, when the Liberals were reduced to a minority.
"It can be a little bit messy. It can be a little bit cumbersome," he told reporters at a news conference to mark the end of the spring session.
The lesson he learned, he said, is that he has to consult with opposition leaders well before the next budget, to get a sense of their priorities and find common ground. But critics said collaboration does not come easily for Mr. McGuinty, a cerebral and aloof leader who is used to running things with a tight-knit group of trusted advisers.
Mr. McGuinty acknowledged that he doesn't know exactly how he is going to proceed when the legislature resumes sitting in September.
His relationship with New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, his one-time ally, is now strained – she called him a bully on Wednesday – and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak shows no interest in participating with the Liberals in future budget talks.
Mr. McGuinty said the Liberals should come up with compromises that veer to the left and the right from their perch in the middle of the political spectrum – something that was not possible during the recent budget talks.
"I'm hoping I'm not going to have to keep tacking only to the left for a number of years," Mr. McGuinty said.
Mr. Hudak said he did not try to negotiate changes to the budget because the Premier rejected all of his ideas for creating jobs when the two met last November.
"I said: 'You know, Premier, we're heading for a train wreck here,' " Mr. Hudak told reporters on Wednesday, adding that he has been proved correct by a recent downgrade to Ontario's credit rating.
Ms. Horwath is still smarting from the Liberals' attacks on her credibility.
The "arrogance, name-calling, ultimatums, election threats and bullying …won't intimidate me next fall," said Ms. Horwath, who then played the gender card. This "undignified discourse," she said, "damages the field of politics and will dissuade people, especially women, from entering politics."
Ms. Horwath said she was "shocked" that the government would engage in that kind of "gutter behaviour," but vowed to rise above it.
Her 17 caucus members abstained from voting on the budget bill. It passed on a vote of 52-35, with the Tories voting against it.
The vote capped a tumultuous few days, after Mr. McGuinty threatened last week to call a snap election if opposition members continued to strike out entire sections of the budget bill.
Mr. McGuinty said Ms. Horwath brought the province to the brink of an election just nine months after the last campaign, calling her "disingenuous."
But the government dropped the election threat on Tuesday after the budget bill emerged from clause-by-clause debate relatively intact.
"Was that so hard?" a testy Ms. Horwath said in Question Period, where she accused Mr. McGuinty of acting like Prime Minister Stephen Harper and "bullying" her party.
It may have been a difficult process, Mr. McGuinty said, but it produced a budget that will allow his government to execute its fiscal plan and stay on target to eliminate the deficit by 2017-18.
"All's well that ends well," he said in Question Period, quoting William Shakespeare.