Premier Dalton McGuinty refused to say Thursday if the public-sector wage freeze legislation opposed by the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats will be a confidence vote in his minority Liberal government.
"Without speaking to that particular issue...an integral part of our plan to attack the deficit is to put in place a freeze on public-sector compensation," McGuinty told the media after his annual agri-food summit.
When reporters pointed out he hadn't answered the question about whether he would declare the bill a confidence motion, McGuinty admitted he was ducking the issue.
"Yeah I know," he said. "That was deliberate. Why is this a surprise?"
The Liberals unveiled a draft version of the bill last week to get opposition input on the plan to freeze wages of 481,000 workers in hospitals, colleges, universities, nursing homes and the civil service to help eliminate a deficit projected at $14.8 billion.
The Tories want the government to open labour contracts to impose an immediate pay freeze, and said they can't vote for a "weak" bill that exempts municipalities, which means police, firefighters and public transit workers will not be covered.
McGuinty rejected the Tory demand to open existing contracts as "a constitutional non-starter," and said he won't extend the wage freeze legislation to cover municipalities, who directly employ police and firefighters.
"We have enough challenges with our own fiscal problems," he said.
The wage freeze legislation brings back some sections on arbitration that were removed from last year's budget bill, and it appears to be the one area where the Liberals could make more changes to win over PC support.
The Tories have long complained arbitrators do not take into account a city's ability to pay when deciding wage issues for emergency services personnel and often suggest the municipality can raise taxes to pay for salary hikes.
However, the government points to a Sept. 27 arbitrator's ruling covering 13,700 workers at Ontario nursing homes which gave no raises in the first two years of a three-year deal.
"The results of recent settlements coupled with aggressive government initiatives makes this (zero increases) conclusion a certainty," wrote arbitrator Martin Teplitsky.
"The recent settlements with Ford, GM and Chrysler and the CAW illustrate this fact."
Public sector unions have vowed to challenge the wage freeze bill in court, and the New Democrats warned it will cost taxpayers even more in the long run if the Liberals and Tories strike a deal and the legislation is then struck down.
"This is the wrong way to go, and both of these parties are determined to cook up a deal that's going to end up at the Supreme Court and cost this province billions of dollars," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"It will create chaos in all kinds of places (like) hospitals, long-term care homes, child care centres, universities, colleges you name it."
McGuinty said he's willing to work with either opposition party to get the legislation passed, but is convinced the Liberals' approach is the correct one.
"I've got the party on my left saying the bill is way too aggressive and the party on my right say it's way too weak, so I'm going to have to find a way to move this forward," he said.
However, the Tories said the Liberals haven't offered any proposals to get them on side for the vote.
"There are at this point no talks of any substance that's going to lead us to some kind of conclusion," said PC finance critic Peter Shurman.
"We have not budged from the position we have taken for over a year now, which is that we have to see a firm, full wage freeze implemented."