TORONTO – The prospect of a spring election drew closer Tuesday as Ontario’s opposition leaders took a hard line on the governing Liberals’ agenda for the new legislative session.
Rookie Premier Kathleen Wynne’s throne speech promised to make the minority parliament work by embracing ideas the opposition parties could support after a bitterly divisive fall session.
But the Progressive Conservatives made it clear they weren’t interested in hugging it out.
The only way to rescue the province from financial ruin is to “change the team,” said Opposition Leader Tim Hudak, adding that his party will vote against the speech.
“I just think the approach that says, a little bit of PC, a little bit of NDP and a whole lot of Dalton McGuinty isn’t going to get us out of this mess,” he said.
“What I heard today was Premier Wynne deciding to entrench the McGuinty agenda that brought us the biggest jobs and debt crisis that we’ve seen in our lifetimes.”
The New Democrats will vote for the throne speech and stave off an election for now, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
But that support will disappear if her list of demands aren’t in the spring budget, she said.
“I’ve been pretty clear. The expectations are not outrageous, they’re not unachievable,” Horwath said.
“They’re things that I need to see in the budget. That’s it.”
It’s the clearest sign yet that Ontario could be plunged in an election this spring, unless the Liberals can persuade one of the parties to support their fiscal plan.
The speech laid out their blueprint for the new legislative session, promising to pay down Ontario’s $12-billion deficit while building a “fair society” that leaves no one behind.
It also promised to work collaboratively with the opposition parties “in the spirit of renewed co-operation” to get things done.
Wynne expressed hope that her overtures would encourage the opposition parties to work out their differences.
“I think that there is lots for both opposition parties to work with us on,” she said. “I hope that they’re able to see that.”
Improving homecare and tackling youth unemployment are issues that all three parties can get behind, she said.
“Those are things that really are not partisan issues,” Wynne said. “Those are concerns of the people of the province.”
The Liberals also promised in the speech to keep a close eye on corporate taxes, work with public sector workers on wage talks and give local residents more say in whether they get a wind farm, gas plant or casino.
They plan to restrain spending to one per cent below gross domestic product once the budget is balanced in 2017-18 — something the Liberals believed the Tories would support.
They also said they’d “evaluate corporate tax compliance,” which the NDP wanted.
The Liberals also reached out to the opposition parties on the Employer Health Tax, saying they’d consider raising the exemption threshold.
Currently, businesses don’t have to pay the tax on the first $400,000 of payroll, but the NDP wanted to end the exemption for businesses with payrolls over $5 million.
The Liberals promised to tackle youth and aboriginal unemployment, while making efforts to give people with disabilities better access to jobs. The government will also contribute $50 million to a new venture capital fund to give small- and medium-sized businesses a leg up, the speech said.
At the same time, they’ll let people on social assistance keep more of their earnings when they work.
As for the Liberals’ rocky relationship with labour groups and teachers angry over imposed contracts, the government will “build a sustainable model for wage negotiations” that will respect collective bargaining, the speech stated.
“It will show its respect for teachers, support staff, principals and school boards,” Lt. Gov. David Onley said as he read the speech.
Union leaders said there are ongoing talks about bringing back extracurricular activities, but their members are looking for something more concrete.
“I didn’t hear anything in particular in the throne speech that gave me any other sense of encouragement or hope,” said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
The Liberals said they’d make transit, roads and bridges a priority, hinting that improving such infrastructure may require politically unpopular levies.
Provincially funded Metrolinx is musing about charging commuters for parking at their GO Transit stations — something the Liberals promised they wouldn’t do last year when they hiked licence and registration fees.
But Wynne said it’s too early to say which “revenue tools” should be used.
Municipalities should have a say in it, as well as a voice in their regional development, the speech said.
“So that local populations are involved from the beginning if there is going to be a gas plant or a casino or a wind plant or a quarry in their hometown,” Onley read.