Ontario budget: Can NDP leader afford to prop up Ontario Liberals again?

It was an NDP-friendly budget that Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne's minority government brought down Thursday. But that doesn't make the decision to support it any easier for the NDP's Andrea Horwath, as Robert Fisher explains.

Robert Fisher looks at the political calculations behind the minority budget

Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne doesn't want an election yet and is pitching for NDP support. She says she was kept in the dark about the gas-plant costs too. (Canadian Press)

It was a triple "e" budget that Ontario's minority Liberal government brought down yesterday: A little of everything, for everybody, everywhere, with the NDP's Andrea Horwath very much in mind.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa and Premier Kathleen Wynne made it clear for weeks that their first budget would be a "Liberal" budget.

But this one has NDP handprints all over it. And the reason was straightforward.

Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, risking (as one senior Tory told me privately) being the only guy "in short pants" at Queen's Park, decided to reject the budget and its direction for the province in advance, to push instead for a provincial election.

Whether he gets his wish, though, will depend on Horwath, who wants to wait a little longer before she delivers her yea or nay.  She wants to consult Ontarians, and her party, as she did last spring with what turned out to be Dalton McGuinty's final budget.

But this time there is the added dimension of Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan telling Horwath not to bring down the Wynne government, and instead work toward an accord with the Liberals to try to create some mutually desired change.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath: Will she prop up unpopular Liberals for a second time? The stakes are higher now. (Canadian Press)

What Ryan is suggesting would be not unlike what happened in 1985 when then NDP leader Bob Rae and then Liberal leader David Peterson brought an end to the long-standing Conservative rule in Ontario with their two-page document that kept Peterson's minority government going for two years.

But the situation this time is a bit different.

Horwath's dilemma

Ryan's wishes notwithstanding, what privately worries the Liberals now, and keeps some of them up at night planning an election, is Horwath's decision to link her support to the ongoing, perhaps never-ending, controversy surrounding the Liberals' mid-election decision 19 months ago to shutter and move two power plants, one in Mississauga, the other in Oakville.

"Yes" was the answer Horwath gave to reporters asking if the gas plant decision would be a part of her budget-support calculations.

Horwath's fresh concerns are based on the fact that the cost of that 2011 election decision is now about $600 million, and counting. And on whether she wants to be tied to that controversy should she give a second lease on life to the Liberals.

The Liberals clearly made that call in the last campaign as part of what is now commonly called "a seat saver plan," since they feared defeat in the ridings where the plants were located because of the growing local opposition.

Dalton McGuinty had once said he would never countenance giving in to this kind of Nimbyism, once a well-thought-out decision had been taken by cabinet.

But a seat's a seat, and when the adding up was being done at campaign headquarters before election day, things did not look good, so the shutdown was announced.

Ironically perhaps, the Liberals took those two "endangered" seats and ended up within one seat of a majority government.

But, with McGuinty now gone, that decision — like a dark cloud — hangs over Wynne, his successor, and may soon follow her into a provincial campaign.

That calculation is what makes Horwath's call now so difficult in terms of its timing.

The longer Wynne stays on as premier, the longer she'll be able to put some distance between herself and McGuinty, who, she says, never did brief her on the true cost of closing the two plants.

But if Horwath props up the Liberals she runs the risk of being seen as approving their gas-plant tactics, while at the same time complaining about their wasting taxpayers' money.

The NDP leader knows she can't have it both ways, and she knows too that, as the saying goes, "you are judged by the company you keep."

But, for Horwath and her caucus, is the company they want to keep Tim Hudak and the Tories? Because that's the alternative, and that's the party they may end up putting in power if an election is held soon.

Either way, there are risks, and Horwath is left with the biggest decision of her relatively young political life.