WILL THE ELECTION ACTUALLY HAPPEN?
Ontarians can be forgiven if they feel they've seen this movie before. Around this time last year, it seemed improbable that the scandal-plagued Liberals would survive another budget; then they did just that, with new Premier Kathleen Wynne doing enough to keep the third-party NDP happy.
But Ms. Wynne now appears less inclined to bend over backward for the New Democrats. And even if she did, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath would have a hard time holding off hawkish members of her caucus who think the Liberals should have been brought down already. While another false start isn't out of the question, the next few months will be about the parties lining up for the race.
WHAT WILL THE BUDGET LOOK LIKE?
Since the spring budget will likely serve as an election trigger, expect it to be loaded up with policies aimed at appealing to voters. Watch out, for instance, for commitments to small infrastructure projects in key ridings, which the opposition could then be accused of opposing.
The broader question will be how the government handles its projected $11.7-billion deficit. Publicly, the Liberals remain committed to returning to balance by 2017-18. But uneager to run on deep spending cuts or big tax increases, some members of Ms. Wynne's campaign team are arguing that pushing back the timeline would be the best pre-election course.
IS A MADE-IN-ONTARIO PENSION PLAN FOR REAL?
The prospect of the province launching its own public pension plan is not just a bluff to try to get Ottawa on board with expanding CPP, but something the Liberals have been flirting with as a major platform plank.
While there is little chance the Liberals will lay out a detailed pension proposal by spring, even a vague promise to take more money off paycheques would be a big gamble.
JUST WHAT IS A 'REVENUE TOOL,' EXACTLY?
Ms. Wynne insists she's prepared to campaign on collecting dedicated taxes or tolls to fund investment in transportation infrastructure, which given opposition parties' stand against such measures will be a defining issue. But considering how much time she spent stalling in 2013, it's obvious the Premier has struggled with the specifics.
Among the decisions facing the Liberals is whether to go with one big new mechanism, such as a gas tax or regional sales tax, or several smaller ones. Whatever they choose, it won't be an easy sell for a government with a poor reputation for spending public dollars prudently.
CAN THE LIBERALS PUT THEIR SCANDALS BEHIND THEM?
The controversy around gas-plants cancellations plagued the Liberals through 2013, and the opposition will try – through committee hearings and other measures – to keep it in the news. Meanwhile, as demonstrated by the provincial auditor's recent revelations about Ontario Power Generation Inc., there could still be other ticking time bombs for a government in its second decade.
To have much hope of making the case for her policy plans, Ms. Wynne can't afford to spend lots more time on the defensive.
WHAT KIND OF MOOD ARE UNIONS IN?
Ms. Wynne has gone some distance toward rebuilding the government's relationship with organized labour, which was in horrible shape when Dalton McGuinty left office. Now the Liberals and NDP will jockey for union support that could give them an edge over each other in the campaign, and especially over the Progressive Conservatives.
Meanwhile, some big public-sector contracts, including with teachers and nurses, are up for negotiation in 2014. History suggests the talks won't really begin in earnest until well into the year, probably after the election. But with the Liberals having incentive to play nice, and the possibility of the Tories replacing them in office, unions could see advantage in trying to get deals done quickly.
HOW HARD-LINE WILL HUDAK BE?
Speaking of the Tories and unions, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak appears to be spoiling for a fight with proposed labour reforms including "right-to-work" legislation. Those and other policies included in his voluminous policy papers suggest a hard-right agenda that also includes significant narrowing of government's scope.
The Tories have been coy about just how many policies they've floated will make it into their platform, and some privately acknowledge that voters may not perceive enough of a fiscal or economic crisis for a sharp right turn. At this point, though, Mr. Hudak may be too dug in to back away.
DOES HORWATH HAVE MORE TO SAY?
The NDP seems set to compete for power for the first time in more than two decades. Having gotten by on the charm of its leader and a smattering of populist policies, it will now be under pressure to flesh out its strikingly thin agenda.
Perceiving little public appetite for the sorts of ambitious programs her party has traditionally campaigned on, Ms. Horwath might continue to resist that pressure. But if she doesn't show more substance, she could struggle under the scrutiny that comes with strong poll numbers.
HOW WILL BY-ELECTIONS SET THE STAGE?
Before a general campaign, voters in the ridings of Niagara Falls and Thornhill will go to the polls to choose replacements for former Liberal MPP Kim Craitor and former PC MPP Peter Shurman. It would be a morale hit for the Liberals to win neither, and that goes double for the Tories, who last year turned on Mr. Hudak after disappointing results in other by-elections.
The only party facing pure upside is the NDP, which has a decent shot of picking up Niagara Falls – potentially giving it a nice boost heading into the spring.