Threat of summer Ontario election eases as budget battles wind down

TORONTO – The threat of a summer election over the Ontario budget virtually evaporated Tuesday, but the partisan battles left some bitter feelings, especially among New Democrats and Liberals.

The legislature was scheduled to be recalled Wednesday for the vote on the minority government’s budget, which the New Democrats said again Tuesday they will allow to pass.

“A budget will be passed in this legislature that is a little more balanced because of the work that we were able to do,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in an interview.

“We set out to make the budget more fair, more responsive to the concerns of families, and I think we were able to do that.”

The NDP forced several concessions from the minority government, including a tax on the rich and increased welfare payments, in exchange for letting the budget pass.

But they angered Premier Dalton McGuinty when they combined with the Progressive Conservatives last week to quash a key section of the budget bill on privatization.

Deputy Premier Dwight Duncan was still fuming Tuesday, saying he wasn’t entirely sure the New Democrats could be trusted to keep their word not to block passage of the budget after breaking two previous deals.

“Because the NDP has broken their word twice, we’re not taking anything for granted,” Duncan told reporters.

“We’ll be watching the NDP closely to ensure they don’t backslide yet again, and if they don’t backslide yet again, and the bill passes, there will be no election.”

Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the NDP made the most of the minority government situation and negotiated hard to get the changes they wanted.

“They’ve been playing it very well, I think, in terms of trying to walk on the edge, get as much as they can,” Jacek said of the NDP.

“They got a lot of criticism from unions for supporting the budget to begin with, so they had to try to assuage those people.”

McGuinty warned last week that he’d call an election rather than suffer more opposition changes to the budget after the opposition voted to remove the privatization sections at committee.

The premier’s threat caught the NDP off guard, said Horwath.

“It seemed like a knee-jerk reaction that I don’t think anybody was expecting,” she said.

“What that shows is that the government is still taking this kind of high-handed approach to things.”

Jacek said McGuinty was clearly angry that the NDP seemed to be breaking an agreement with the Liberals and now realizes the Liberals probably should have got it in writing.

However, the government was aware there was a down side to signing a deal with the NDP, he added.

“I think the Liberals probably decided if they have a formal agreement it would give more status, and possibly more influence to the NDP, and they didn’t want to do that because in the next election they hope to take back some of the seats that the NDP won,” said Jacek.

“I think there were misunderstandings on both sides.”

Horwath was angry the Liberals called her disingenuous, a backstabber and accused her of breaking her word, personal attacks she said turn people off politics, especially women.

“I think they’re meant to silence and bully people,” she said.

“I’ve been quite taken aback by the change in the way Mr. McGuinty has been dealing with things.”

It was the Conservatives’ decision to back some NDP budget amendments in the finance committee that caught everyone off guard and threw the whole process into turmoil, added Jacek.

“I think what surprised the government, and the NDP, was that on some issues that were clearly NDP-type issues, the Conservatives were voting with the NDP in ways that didn’t seem to fit with their basic ideology,” he said.

“They were voting with the NDP to give the government some trouble.”

Neither PC Leader Tim Hudak nor McGuinty were available Tuesday to comment on the tensions surrounding the budget process.

The opposition parties, which control the finance committee, called McGuinty’s election bluff and on Monday and Tuesday removed more sections of the budget on labour arbitration.

The committee then wrapped up its clause-by-clause review Tuesday without any more major changes.

The Progressive Conservatives have vowed to vote against the budget since it was introduced, and say it still does nothing to rein in government spending or help create jobs.