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ontario politics

As Ontario's government does battle with the broader public sector, teachers are threatening to walk off their jobs in protest of legislation they say tramples all over their collective-bargaining rights. Deficit-reduction plans rely almost entirely on curbing spending. Recommendations aimed at poverty reduction, made recently by a government-commissioned, social-assistance review, were immediately shelved because their relatively modest price tag was considered too high.

No wonder the governing Liberals seem to be bleeding away their left-of-centre support, with several candidates for their vacated leadership campaigning on the premise of restoring it.

And yet, for all that, the only real public-policy pressure is coming from the party to the Liberals' right.

Little more than a year ago, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak was written off as a glib opportunist with nothing significant to say. Now, in the run-up to a likely 2013 election, it's the NDP's Andrea Horwath who seems to be flirting with that designation, while Mr. Hudak all but saturates the controversial-ideas market.

Chastened by the failure of his 2011 campaign strategy, which involved cynically trying to differentiate himself on a few marginal wedge issues, Mr. Hudak vowed that next time he would sink or swim with stuff that actually excites him. He is making good on that promise by effectively arguing that if the province is going to get blue-lite with the Liberals, it might as well go true-blue instead.

Next week, Mr. Hudak will unveil the latest of his "white papers," titled "A New Deal for the Public Sector." Based on strong hints he dropped during a speech this week to the Economic Club of Toronto, and conversations with sources, it will propose not only major public-sector job cuts coupled with attempts to shift toward a more merit-based bureaucracy, but also privatization touching on the LCBO and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation.

If that would make labour's fight with Premier Dalton McGuinty look like a group hug, Mr. Hudak has promised that already. He has proposed Wisconsin-style measures that would end mandatory union dues in both public- and private-sector workplaces. He would move to shift public-sector workers from defined-benefit to defined-contribution pension plans. And he wants to tear up existing contracts to expedite a pay freeze, prompting what could generously be described as an uphill legal battle.

Mr. Hudak has pledged to cut rather than just curb program spending, with an aim to eliminate the deficit before the current target of 2017-18. Those cuts would have to be deep, since he would also try to stimulate economic growth with tax cuts. And he has suggested trimming a third of all existing government regulations.

In short, it's possible to understand what Mr. Hudak would do differently from outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty.

That's a lot more than could be said for Ms. Horwath, whose policy musings mostly involve vague complaints about the Liberals being out-of-touch. And that goes to show how different it is to be on either end of the spectrum right now.

If you believe in shrinking government's scope, the universally acknowledged need to tackle the deficit means that Christmas has come early. Conversely, if you strongly believe in government as a force for good, the fact that there's no money to spend – and won't be for the foreseeable future – really limits your options.

But part of the reason the debate is currently so one-sided is that only one side is being bold. If you don't believe government should spend less, the obvious alternative is on the revenue side. That would mean levelling with voters that you think they might need to pay more – something Ms. Horwath has not been willing to do, outside extremely high-income earners who would never vote for her anyway.

Leading up to the last election, Tory strategists conceded that Mr. Hudak would cut much more than he was letting on. This time around, he's an open book; it's the NDP that could plausibly be accused of a hidden agenda.

That, or there really is no serious alternative to the Liberals' left. That may change by the time the campaign begins in earnest. For now, the right is winning the policy debate by default.