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Taking It To The Street

BUDGET BRINKMANSHIP, STRATEGIES 

AND STUNTS AT QUEEN'S PARK


"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

     - The Wizard of Oz


By Susanna Kelley

There have been no end of strategizing, political maneuvering and outright stunts at Queen's Park leading up to Ontario's Liberal budget, set to be delivered on Thursday.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has had two meetings with NDP leader Andrea Horwath, whose party's support she is trying to win in order to avoid being plunged into a spring election the Liberals say they don't want.

Despite indications the government is ready to move on lowering auto insurance rates, home care, jobs and youth unemployment, Wynne has yet to win Horwath's promise to support the budget.

One of the things holding up a third meeting between Wynne and Horwath, sources say, is, while the government will talk in general about "shared areas of interest" - for example, a 15 per cent cut in auto insurance - it is reluctant to get into specific details of what will be in the budget.

That's understandable.

Budget secrecy, until the Finance Minister starts to deliver his budget speech in the Legislature at four o'clock on Thursday, is a parliamentary tradition. 

An outdated tradition, but a tradition still followed.

(An embargo on budget contents until four o'clock budget day was originally based on waiting until the markets closed in order to avoid giving anyone an advantage. However, global trading in many time zones now means that is of little consequence.)

From the NDP's point of view, however, it's of little use to meet with only vague acknowledgements the Liberals share areas of interest but be given no specific guarantees of what will be in the budget, such as guaranteeing people wait not longer than five days for home care.

No one could be expected to pledge support for vague acknowledgments.

The ultimate decision on whether the budget will pass or the government will fall is still several weeks away and could be as late as the end of this month.

The point is a lot of the to-ing and fro-ing at Queen's Park you are hearing about is simply political maneuvering.

Neither Horwath nor Wynne want to be blamed for an election being called less than two years after the last one in October of 2011.

Hence the very public nature of their meetings.

Both want to be able to show that they tried to make minority government work.

Both are well aware of what happened to former Liberal Premier David Peterson's Liberal minority when he called an election early in 1989.

His party was toast as  "grumpy" voters, as Peterson called them,  saw his early election call as an opportunistic move to get a majority.

Hence the continued, very public calls for Liberal-NDP meetings should come as no surprise.

The Tories under Tim Hudak have a very different strategy.

Mr. Hudak has said his party will vote against the budget, sight unseen.

According to his finance critic Peter Shurman, that is because they can't believe anything the Liberals say anyway.

Sources say there is a different reason in reality.

Mr. Hudak is facing significant opposition from within his own party, angry he lost an election last time that they thought he should have won, and he is playing to the core in order to hang on to his job..

 And the Tory core want no truck nor trade with the Liberals at any cost.

Sources say Mr. Hudak's vulnerability is the real reason he's been holding a series of town hall discussions across the province as well - to shore up eroded party support for the leader.

A recent one in Scarborough was well attended but most people there were either local MP's, MPP's, PC candidates, riding executive officials and party supporters.

As well, Mr. Hudak has purposely placed himself on the far right with his series of white papers, pledging to fire 10,000 education workers, cut taxes and welfare payments and make Ontario a right to work province. 

(If that sounds like Mike Harris' 1995 election platform, that's because the same people who ran the 1995 campaign are running this one for Mr. Hudak. They also ran the last one, albeit secretly, with its emphasis on "chain gangs" and "foreign workers.")

Those around Mr. Hudak have decided the 2011 campaign was lost because they were not "conservative" enough.

Many disagree, saying it was mistakes like the "chain gang" policy and "foreign workers" controversy that cost him the election by looking too far right.

One PC official told me recently however, that the white papers are merely for discussion and won't necessarily be the platform.

That may be the case, but it hardly matters - Mr. Hudak has already defined himself as being hard right for the last several years and it's stuck.

This purposeful positioning will make it difficult for centrist swing voters (soft Liberals) to feel comfortable casting a ballot for his party if they are inclined not to vote Liberal this time. 

Those voters have only gone hard right twice in my electoral memory - 1995 and 1999 - both with Mike Harris as leader.

Before that the Tories bled red for 42 years, ending with the demise of Bill Davis' Big Blue Machine in 1985.

And by 2003 Ontario voters were through with the experiment of hard right government, rejecting the Conservatives and elected Dalton McGuinty.

There is no indication that a Tea Party north is what they are looking for now either.

Which understandably frustrates many Tories, who see a government awash in the ehealth, ORNGE and gas plant scandals.

But speaking of stunts, this week they are trying to put forward a confidence motion on the gas plant scandal.

It all sounds great but of course Mr. Hudak's advisors know it would have to be approved by the government house leader, and that that would never happen.

It is this sort of transparent political maneuvering that the public sees through and can punish a party for should an election be called too early.

So pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, as the Wizard of Oz said when the diminutive male was caught staging his "magical tricks" with a machine and a microphone.

The real decision on whether the budget will fail and we'll be off to the polls this spring is still several weeks off yet.


You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley 

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : April 29, 2013

View all of Susanna Kelley's columns
Taking It To The Street
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