Emboldened by her party's victories in two by-elections, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath signalled Friday she will not allow Premier Kathleen Wynne's minority administration to finish its mandate.
With Ms. Wynne maintaining that she wants to keep governing until parliament's term expires in October 2015 and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak gunning to vote the Liberals down, it falls to Ms. Horwath to decide how long the government lives.
"It's a matter of the opportunity [to vote down the government] arising and it being the appropriate time. That election's coming and this is something that we talked to the folks about in all the ridings. That election's inevitable," she said at Queen's Park the morning after the by-elections.
Asked if Ms. Wynne can stave off an election until 2015, Ms. Horwath replied: "I would be surprised, let me put it that way, I would be surprised."
Ms. Horwath's NDP posted the best result in Thursday's five by-elections, which were triggered by the resignations of former premier Dalton McGuinty and four former Liberal cabinet ministers. NDPers Percy Hatfield, a city councillor and former broadcaster, took the Windsor-Tecumseh riding in a landslide. Peggy Sattler, a former school board chair, added London West to Ms. Horwath's win column by a convincing nine-point margin.
The Liberals, meanwhile, held on to Ottawa South, Mr. McGuinty's former seat, and Scarborough-Guildwood, but with lower vote shares than they took in the last general election. Progressive Conservative Doug Holyday scooped up Etobicoke-Lakeshore.
At a Friday news conference, Ms. Wynne blamed her party's poor showing on Mr. McGuinty's costly decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants ahead of the last general election, in what was widely seen as a political play to hold on to seats. The cancellations cost an estimated $600-million, though that is subject to change. His government later mishandled the disclosure of gas plant-related documents, with some staffers deleting all their e-mails and his office pushing for the Speaker to change a major ruling against the Liberals.
"People are angry about…the gas plant issue. They're angry that money was wasted, especially because there is money that's needed for so many other things, and they might even be angrier because of the process around the flow of information. And that's why, when I came into this office, I opened up the process," she said. "Some of the political management of that issue was not what I would have wanted it to be, and in fact was the opposite of what my approach would be."
She said that, now that voters have punished the Liberals, the party can try to frame the next general election around other issues.
"I'm looking to the future. I think it's very important that we focus on the economy, getting the economy moving, creating jobs," she said. "I believe that the by-elections were about recent past events, and I think that the next general election will be about the future. I think it will be a very different ballot question."
And she tried to put the animosity of the campaign behind her. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who campaigned Mr. Holyday, compared electing Liberals to "giving a bank robber another gun." The Liberals hit back by accusing Mr. Ford of failing to do anything to build subways.
Ms. Wynne, however, played down the rift. A good personal relationship is not necessary for the two levels of government to work together, she said.
"Whatever the politics are of opinions or a particular interaction in an election, that to me is beside the point in terms of my responsibility to work with the office of the Mayor of Toronto. I will continue to do that, and personal relationships will be absolutely secondary," she said.
Ms. Horwath indicated that revelations on the gas plants might finally induce her to pull the plug on the Liberal government, which she has propped up since the 2011 election in exchange for numerous policy concessions. A legislative committee is set to continue probing the cancellations next week, and the auditor-general will release a report on the cost of cancelling one of the plants later this month.
"There's more information coming, it feels like every week, on the gas plant scandal and the committee's going to start work again next week, the auditor general's going to be reporting. So it's one day at a time as far as the future goes," she said. "In a minority parliament, anything can happen. So I'm not suggesting sooner or later, but what I'm saying is, I'm not so sure that we'll get all that far."
It is not clear when the opposition will have its next opportunity to vote down the government. The only way they can hold a confidence vote without Ms. Wynne's approval is by blocking the government's supply of funds, such as in next year's budget. There is, however, a possibility Ms. Wynne's plan to raise new taxes and tolls in Toronto to pay for transit could come up for vote before that and might count as a supply bill, since it involves raising and spending money.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak called on Ms. Horwath to help him force an early election.
"I want to congratulate Andrea Horwath…on the gains she made last night as well, and I hope she also heard the very clear message that voters sent, that they want change," he said. "I believe it's time to give voters that choice right across our province, not just in five ridings, but right across Ontario: do you think we're on the on the right track today, or can Ontario do a lot better than this?"
He also tried to see the bright side in the previous day's result. Despite losing four ridings, Mr. Hudak said, he finally ended the Tory shutout in Toronto.
"For the first time since 1999, we won a seat in the Liberal stronghold of Toronto. We broke through," he said. "You know what that tells me? The PC party is moving forward, and we're going to take more Toronto and GTA seats."
Ms. Horwath sounded rather more elated, telling reporters that she stayed up late partying after the election results rolled in.
"I feel like a big winner, absolutely. I'm very, very pleased, don't get me wrong," she said. "I was over the moon. In fact, I think the moon was very visible for me for me for way too long last night. I should have been in bed a lot earlier than I was."