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May 7, 2013

Wynne faces key challenge with budget

Geoffrey Stevens

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Premier Kathleen Wynne's retreaded Liberal government will bring down its budget on Thursday - her first since taking over at Queen's Park in February - and it's anyone's guess what will happen. We may not know until Wednesday or even Thursday. As of today, there's probably a 35-40 per cent chance that Wynne's negotiations with NDP leader Andrea Horwath will fail. If they do, the minority Liberal government will fall within days, and Ontarians will be sent to the polls in June.

Only one thing seems certain: having been painted into a corner by their leader, the Progressive Conservatives will oppose the budget, regardless of its contents. That leaves Horwath as Wynne’s only dance partner.

Tory leader Tim Hudak is a product of the John Diefenbaker school of political arts. Dief was resolute in his conviction that the role of the Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is to oppose. Period. As Dief saw it, it is not the responsibility of the opposition to help a minority government to serve the citizenry. The opposition’s job is to throw the scoundrels out, come hell or high water.

Having made his intention clear at the outset, Hudak lost any opportunity to nudge Wynne and her finance minister Charles Sousa a bit to the right. Hudak’s stance may play well with the Tory hardliners party, but it does not help his standing among the public at large; he trails the other two leaders in popularity.

Each of the three leaders has a problem. Wynne’s is that while Ontarians like her, they don’t like her government or her party. The stench of the Dalton McGuinty era spending scandals (hydro plants, Ornge ambulance, eHealth) still lingers. An Ipsos Reid poll last week reported that 66 per cent of Ontario voters believe it is time for another political party to take over. “Time for a change,” is a deadly warning for any government.

Horwath’s problem is the longer she props up the Liberals — she has been at it since the October 2011 election — the less she is able to present the NDP as an alternative to the government. If voters like the Liberal/NDP brand of policies, why not vote for the real thing, Wynne’s Liberals? But if Horwath turns her back on Wynne this week (as many New Democrats are urging), she will bear the blame for an election most Ontarians don’t want.

Tim Hudak’s problem is he knows he cannot trust the polls. They may show the Conservatives six to eight points ahead of the Liberals (and a couple more points ahead of the third-place New Democrats). But Hudak has been there before. He went into the 2011 election with a large lead, but he let it dribble away during the campaign. It seems the more voters see and hear of Hudak the less they like him. Perhaps the Tories should send their leader on a round-the-world cruise until the election is over.

The polls point to another minority government. A seat projection prepared by my colleague, Professor Barry Kay, for the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP), points to a fragile minority Conservative government with 45 seats, to 38 seats for the Liberals and 24 for the NDP. The Tories would fail to breach the Liberals’ Fortress Toronto. Kay projects no Conservative seats at all in Toronto itself and only four in the rest of the GTA.

But the Tories would tighten their hold on southwest Ontario, winning 18 of the 24 seats in the region. On the basis of the projection, the Liberals would be left with just two seats in southwest Ontario — one in Guelph and one in London. John Milloy, the government house leader, would lose the Kitchener Centre seat he narrowly retained in the 2011 election. The Kitchener-Waterloo seat, won by New Democrat Catherine Fife in a byelection upset last September, appears to be a toss-up.

A June election? There’s not much for any leader or party cheer about.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

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