McGuintygeddon: Countdown to an Ontario election, or not

Dalton McGuinty was the very picture of grim determination this morning at Queen’s Park as the Ontario premier explained why an election right now would be a disaster for Ontario.

“An election right now,” he said, “would threaten our economic recovery.”

“If we receive a downgrade because we’re plunged into an election less than a year after the last one,” he warned, interest rates will go up and vital programs will become more expensive and harder to finance.

An election, he said in a half-dozen ways, would be just an awful thing. But he may call one next week.

This is going to be a tricky sell.

The problem, the McGuinty Liberals say, is that the opposition parties are using their narrow combined majority to “gut” the provincial budget. Yesterday at Finance Committee, the Conservatives joined the NDP to remove five schedules — essentially, chapters of the budget bill, each dealing with a combination of measures on a broad area of governance — from the budget bill.

(The parallels between the federal and Ontario budget situations have been too little explored. Just like the Harper Conservatives, the McGuinty Liberals have tried to package a bunch of disparate changes — nearly a whole year’s worth of governing program — in a sweeping omnibus budget bill. Provincial Conservative criticisms of some of these changes have sounded a lot like federal Liberals’. The only party blessed with the opportunity to sound consistent at both levels of government has been the NDP.)

At some point during his news conference this morning, McGuinty seemed to realize he’s the guy who will decide whether there’s an election, even as he keeps telling Ontarians an election would cause nothing but turmoil. So he attempted to set up a hierarchy of turmoil. Sure, an election is a risk, he said, “but the greater risk is for us to be without a plan.” His budget may look like a hodgepodge, he said, but in fact it’s a carefully-selected set of tools for digging Ontario out of its fiscal mess, and “every one of those tools is integral to getting the job done.” “I don’t think anybody wants an election, but I have a higher responsibility,” he intoned, “to protect the health and wellbeing of the economy.”

The broader question here is whether McGuinty now has any hope of governing coherently and according to his own wishes, now that he has already lost a confrontation Stephen Harper was careful not to lose in Ottawa. In a minority government, the opposition can team up to cause mischief in a hundred ways — and most of those ways do not lead to a confidence vote that can, in itself, decide that a government falls and the legislature must be dissolved.

Andrea Horwath’s NDP and Tim Hudak’s PCs have realized that, as long as they don’t defeat the government on a confidence measure, they can defeat it on everything else and essentially hamper its ability to implement any agenda. That’s what Harper sought to avoid with his famous committee tactics from 2006 until — well, until today, because old habits die hard. The Harper Conservatives would rather shut a committee down, ignore its own votes, have witnesses pop up without warning or ignore longstanding agreements to testify, and do all the other tricks we’ve come to know and love covering, rather than lose a substantive vote back in the days when the Liberals, NDP and Bloc outnumbered them. McGuinty is a nicer guy, and the price for that is that he has now lost, perhaps forever, his ability to decide which parts of his legislation live or die.

In that world, it makes a lot of sense to roll the dice on an election. If he wins a majority, McGuinty would be premier again with the support he needs to implement his agenda. If he doesn’t, his troubles are over anyway because somebody else will be premier and he can go decorate his office at Massey College.

But despite the fevered claims of his more over-the-hill communications advisors, McGuinty will have a very hard time framing the ballot question in any election. He can’t keep it at the level of broad principle by sheer force of will. The specific content of those defeated budget chapters will become campaign fodder too, and they sought to constrain environmental review in a very Harperesque way. As he defends his right to make those changes, McGuinty starts to lose appeal with the Liberal voter base. Nor can he grump around the province as Harper grumped around the country a year ago, blaming the opposition for the election, because as long as the Ontario provincial opposition takes care not to defeat McGuinty on a confidence vote, then an election is entirely McGuinty’s choice.

Right now an Ontario election looks entirely possible, but not likely. There’s still plenty of room for somebody, whether McGuinty or Horwath, to back down. But this confrontation is over something real: if McGuinty survives by making concessions now, he essentially loses his ability to govern coherently.