Tim Hudak's public sector promise a potential turning point
It’s been only 10 days of unofficial and official campaigning in the Ontario election.
But its potential "defining moment" is already firmly in place courtesy of Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, just as it was before the 1995 provincial election by then PC-leader Mike Harris.
Released at a town hall-style campaign event in Barrie last Friday, the plan — that some call the "Common Sense Revolution 2.0" — is based primarily on the Tories' belief they can balance the province’s books by 2016-2017, a year before the Kathleen Wynne-led Liberals will.
"Where expenses can be cut, we will cut them," said Finance Minister Charles Sousa in tabling his 2014 Ontario budget.
"Where services can be provided more efficiently, we will do so. But, what we will not do is sacrifice important public services. That is not the Ontario way."
Hudak, though, is clearly counting — some say gambling — on Ontarians wanting another "way" to deal with what he sees as a "bloated" public service and, the province’s growing deficit.
"It's bold, long overdue. It’s not going to be easy," Hudak told a country club audience of PC supporters.
The plan will, according to Hudak, affect 100,000 civil servants except police, nurses and doctors doing "vital work."
And all programs and services will be "on the table" including education.
"It will mean fewer teachers and their assistants," said Hudak who some months ago made it clear that as premier, there would be "pink slips" for 9,700 non-teaching staff, including administration and maintenance staff and education assistants. The PCs say this would not impact education assistants who work with special needs students.
The PC leader says he is offering Ontarians what he calls "the plain truth." But will voters be prepared to accept it?
Wynne predicts painful cuts
Wynne says Hudak’s ideas will mean across-the-board cuts to education, child and health care.
"Our most vulnerable people will be at risk," said the Liberal leader standing in front of a podium with a sign reading "Jobs not cuts."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has also been quick to condemn the PC plan, reminding voters "these are the same kind of things he pushed while sitting around the cabinet table with Mike Harris."
Public-sector labour has also weighed in.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) says that while Hudak calls it a "jobs plan," in reality it’s "an unemployment plan."
Paul Elliot, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) says the Hudak plan is based on some kind of ideology "completely out of touch with any reality."
Warren (Smokey) Thomas who heads the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) says Hudak has given public service workers "a reason to vote against him."
But that comment and whatever action backs it up, will play well with Hudak's base, who like their leader, believe the civil service needs to be trimmed.
The question for Hudak is: can he build on that? Can he convince other voters that unlike Wynne and Horwath, he is on the right track.
Risk versus reward
So the plan is "bold," but it’s also risky.
For voters, who lived through what two terms of the Harris "Common Sense Revolution" did to the province, there will be some, or a lot of worry.
The PC leader has, according to the most recent polling by Ipsos Reid, got his party in first place ahead of the Liberals and New Democrats. That poll, which came before Hudak announced his plan to trim the civil service, indicated that one in three people surveyed believe he would make the "best premier," putting him ahead of Horwath and Wynne.
But what will the next poll say?
Former Ontario NDP premier — and more recently the interim leader of the federal Liberals — Bob Rae says elections "are not about counting heads (in polls) but about turning heads."
Hudak has certainly done that with his plan in a clear attempt to distinguish himself from the other two main party leaders.
But his dramatic promise, coming as it does so early in the campaign, will provide some continuing talking points for the other two main party leaders.
Wynne and Horwath have a different set of ideas about where government ought to go and how to get there.
They now agree on little, except that they reject the Hudak plan and will campaign against it from now until June 12th, Election Day.
Hudak's "Barrie Doctrine" can be seen, therefore, as a gift for the Liberals and New Democrats.
But if voters subscribe to the belief that this election is only about the Liberals and Conservatives, the plan could prove to be "the gift that keeps on giving" for Wynne.
Her opposition dovetails neatly into her ongoing criticism of the Stephen Harper government.
Wynne opposes what a Liberal campaign insider calls "the sink or swim" attitude of the prime minister and Hudak.
The PC leader opposes what he sees as the Liberal view that, to continue the water analogy, spending will and should "lift all boats."
If he has guessed right on that — that government can't and shouldn't do that — he could well wake up on the morning of June 13th as the premier-elect.
If he has guessed wrong, and the so-called "Million Jobs Plan" with its deep civil service job and program cuts is rejected, the one job he’ll definitely have to find will be one for himself.
- This story has been updated to clarify the PCs' position on cuts to non-teaching staff, including education assistants not assigned to special needs students.Jun 03, 2014 4:05 PM ET