Kathleen Wynne did not have much leeway to differentiate herself from Dalton McGuinty without compromising her credibility to run a province still facing enormous fiscal pressures.
But with her first budget, Ms. Wynne nevertheless shifted the tone and as much of the substance as she could away from the single-minded focus on austerity that characterized her predecessor's final year in office.
As much as that shift was largely about trying to win the support of the third-party NDP to keep her minority government alive, it was about something more as well: a rookie premier giving the most concrete evidence to date of what all of her talk about "conversations" and a "fair society" (and occasional references to "social justice") amount to.
Ms. Wynne could have grudgingly offered a few concessions to the New Democrats, as Mr. McGuinty did, while portraying them as a necessary evil to avoid an election. Instead, she made them the centrepiece of her budget, and upped the ante on many of them.
Andrea Horwath wanted $190-million for a youth employment fund? Ms. Wynne would see the NDP Leader that and raise her an extra $100-million. Claw back less employment income from welfare recipients? How about that and an increase to social assistance rates, plus letting those recipients keep more of their liquid assets. Spend an additional $30-million to guarantee a five-day waiting time for home care? Well, the Premier was not sure about the guarantee, but how about $260-million instead?
Then there are the social-conscience measures that the NDP did not ask for, but Ms. Wynne delivered anyway – modest new sums for aboriginal housing and education, and for legal aid, and for adults with disabilities.
Consider the differences between Dwight Duncan's budget speech last year and the one Charles Sousa delivered on Thursday. The former finance minister devoted almost the entire thing to cost-cutting, playing down any new expenditures and playing up even the mildest savings vehicles. The new one did precisely the opposite, with austerity shunted to the text's final section.
None of this is to say that this year's budget is a left-wing document; not when it still aims to keep program spending increases as low as 1 per cent annually to maintain the 2017-18 target for deficit elimination. But it is much more in that direction than Mr. McGuinty would have favoured. And while it helps to set Ms. Wynne apart, to let her stake out her turf as a premier trying for balance rather than that single-mindedness, to look at it is to wonder how long she will be able to maintain that persona.
If the government survives this spring – which is no sure thing, since even all the concessions have not yet prompted Ms. Horwath to commit her support – Ms. Wynne's job will soon get even tougher.
Her commitment to balance, by her account and others, involves not straying too far from fiscal responsibility. And many of her fellow Liberals will acknowledge that much of the reform needed to get out of the red, from restructuring of the broader public service to further changes to how health care is delivered, remains to be done.
Ms. Wynne was largely able to put off most of those decisions because Mr. McGuinty took such a relatively hard line last year. She acknowledged as much in an interview earlier this week, saying that she could address what she considers to be urgent issues around "fair society" because measures like finding savings in public-sector compensation allowed the government to beat its targets for deficit reduction.
If she gets to preside over another budget, even just meeting targets will require new measures that she clearly has not wrapped her head around yet. She would still be able to pursue things that matter to her, such as the revenue generation for public transit expansion on which she just got the ball rolling. But if she were to invest more in making society fairer, or just in keeping the only opposition party that will deal with her happy, it would require some much bigger trade-offs than she had to make this year.
For at least one year, though, she had just enough room to do such things. It was about her government's survival, to be sure. But on Thursday it sure did not feel as though her only motivation was a gun to her head.