TORONTO – Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has only one thing on his Christmas wish list: a spring election, and it’ll be up to the New Democrats to decide if he will get what he’s hoping for.
“I think we need change in the province,” Hudak said in a year-end interview. “Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, that makes him a Canadian citizen, and maybe an honorary citizen of the province of Ontario, so hopefully he’s on side with that.”
Less than a year after being sworn-in as premier, Kathleen Wynne is in no rush for a general election, and said she wants to keep the 10-year-old Liberal government alive for a while yet.
“I’m going to continue to work to make the minority Parliament function,” said Wynne. “We’ve passed 13 or 14 pieces of legislation, which nobody thought we were going to be able to do, so I’m going to continue to do my job, and when it’s time for an election we’ll all be clear about that.”
The New Democrats kept the minority Liberals alive by striking deals for significant changes in the provincial budget each of the last two years, but the party is concerned by what it sees as government foot dragging on promises to cut auto insurance rates by 15 per cent and create a financial accountability office.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she plans to consult voters before the legislature resumes Feb. 21 to see if the party should stop propping up the minority government.
“I’m going to be talking to Ontarians about the commitments we forced the government to make in the two budgets, and get a sense of whether people feel those commitments are being fulfilled,” she said. “I’m going to take my cues from them going forward.”
The Tories want the NDP to stop supporting the Liberals and keeping them in power.
“Half the job losses in our province, half of the gas plants’ scandal, they should be on the back of the NDP for propping this government up over and over again,” said Hudak.
Wynne could test the electoral waters before next spring’s provincial budget, which will be a confidence vote, by calling byelections in Niagara Falls and Thornhill. She must call the Niagara vote by the end of March, and all three parties are putting big efforts into what had been a Liberal riding. The Toronto riding of Thornhill had been Conservative, and is seen as a two-way race between the Tories and Liberals.
The Liberals want to introduce an Ontario Pension Plan, which would require increased contributions from employers and workers, after they failed to convince the federal government to enhance the CPP to virtually double benefits.
They also are considering a recommendation to increase the provincial tax on gasoline by up to 10 cents a litre to raise the billions of dollars needed to fund public transit expansion and help ease gridlock in the Toronto-Hamilton area.
Both the PCs and NDP vow to block any new taxes or fees to fund transit, but Wynne believes voters know action must be taken now or future generations will look back in anger at what wasn’t done.
“You can pick one piece of the plan and say: ‘Well that’s really hard to campaign on,’” she said, “but I know that people need transit, they want investment in transit.”
The Tories want to make union membership and dues voluntary with so-called right-to-work legislation, which the Liberals and NDP say means the right-to-work-for-less, and is an attack on organized labour.
“The Great Lakes (U.S.) states that have modernized their labour laws are eating our lunch,” complained Hudak. “They’re taking our jobs, and that means the foundation of the middle class and the manufacturing sector is eroding in Ontario.”
The Liberals must be held accountable for the $1.1 billion spent to cancel two gas plants, the OPP investigation of deleted emails into the projects, a second police investigation into the Ornge air ambulance service, the $9.3 million paid to Ornge CEO Chris Mazza and exorbitant salaries at provincial energy agencies, said Horwath.
“I don’t see any evidence that Ms. Wynne has done anything to engender a great deal of confidence from Ontarians in terms of her capacity to turn the ship around,” said Horwath. “It might be a new face at the top, but it’s the same culture and the same government.”
Wynne has apologized for the way the gas plants were handled — something former premier Dalton McGuinty refused to do — and said the government learned “painful lessons” from the projects. She also promised legislation to put hard caps on compensation packages for public sector executives.
“I’m not going to suggest that it’s all been easy and I’m not going to pretend that there haven’t been very, very difficult moments,” said Wynne. “But it is well worth it to be able to change the way we do business in government and put in place a much better and more transparent process.”
Hudak has been itching for another election since the Tories blew a big lead in the polls heading into the October 2011 campaign, in which the Liberals were re-elected to a third term but reduced to a minority government. He’s trying to counter criticism that he just doesn’t connect with Ontario voters.
“I’m holding back on the Hudak-mania, don’t want it running wild across the province or getting in the way of our plans and policies,” joked Hudak. “But people aren’t going to be deciding on who will be a nicer leader, who’s going to win a popularity contest. They want somebody with a turnaround plan for the province.”