Ontario NDP likely to cave in budget showdown

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is likely to back the budget to prop up the Liberals rather than risk hard-won gains made in the fall provincial election.

"I don’t want an election but I don’t fear one either."

Those war-like words came from NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in a television interview a week ago, after she didn’t draw another line in the sand with Dalton McGuinty's Liberals over their budget.

But for someone who now says on a daily basis that she's "not drawing a line in the sand," the mantra’s wearing a little thin.

Either she’ll vote for the budget on Tuesday or she won’t. It’s as simple as that.

And my guess is that based on past experience, all this sabre-rattling by Horwath will amount to nothing. She’ll back the budget to prop up the Liberals and keep you from getting that lawn sign you so badly wanted among your spring tulips, at least for now.

Let’s look at the facts. Horwath did a splendid job in the October provincial election – her first as a party leader.

She surprised many, even in her own party, with her poise and political smarts.

She got the NDP more seats and in this "major minority" as the premier likes to call it, she’s important. But only to a point and she knows that.

She also knows that all that she gained personally and politically in the last provincial election could be wiped out by standing when her name is called by the Speaker and he asks: "all those opposed?"

And then there’s that little matter of which bank has got money to loan the NDP the funds to run another election so close to the last one. And if the party finds that bank how are they ever going to be able to pay off the bills from not one but two campaigns?

Under Andrea Horwath's leadership during the fall election, the Ontario NDP went from 10 to 17 seats in the legislature. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

The Liberals keep whispering that the NDP will be bankrolled by Ontario labour.

Tough sell for dippers

But I’m not convinced, nor are members of the NDP caucus that could happen or if they even want it to happen.

If you’re moving the party in the direction of Tony Blair’s "third way" in Britain, you can’t sidle up to the hard hats and steel-toed boots when you’re in need of cash.

And besides, the last time I looked labour wasn’t exactly trumpeting Horwath’s ‘let’s make a deal with Dalton' approach to the budget.

Ontario Federation of Labour President Sid Ryan – famous for saying after the NDP’s social contract was imposed in the 90s that he'd "never forgive" then-premier Bob Rae – may well be getting ready to substitute Horwath’s name.

And even among Horwath’s caucus, some MPPs have told her privately there is no way they can support the budget.

How could northern MPPs say yes to a plan that’ll see the selling off – if anyone but government wants it – of Ontario Northland?

How could they go back and tell cancer patients in their ridings – for example – they’ll have to sit for hours on a bus to Toronto for their chemotherapy treatments?

Even if the NDP got the Liberals to up the tax on those earning over $500,000 a year, that won’t matter a wit to Northerners who already feel no one at Queen’s Park ever listens to them.

But Horwath’s not alone in dealing with caucus ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ on the budget issue and a potential election.

Some Conservative MPPs want to avoid another election at all cost – unless of course – they’re among those who see it and, another loss, as a way of jettisoning leader Tim Hudak, who has been left out in the cold by the left in the budget debate.

Liberal split on spring vote

Hudak has learned once you say no, there’s not much room to negotiate. And perhaps the Liberals are right when they say the Tory leader has "forfeited his right to criticize" because he’s taken himself out of the talk to change the budget, something the Liberals now grudgingly admit has to happen.

And that shows there’s a Liberal split, too.

Not everyone is willing to fully commit to polling data that shows they could win back their majority and allow McGuinty to depart for directorships unknown and, the small fortune he’ll command on the free market as a private citizen. The Liberals have also offered concessions of their own — McGuinty announced Friday afternoon his party will increase support for child care and the Ontario Disability Support Program

But most Liberal backbenches believe what they’re told and dream of those days when they can again do what they want, when they want and not have to cozy up to the third party for support.

The bottom line on all that and the ongoing public spats and private talks between the NDP and the Liberals will be an agreement on something – anything – that’ll allow Horwath to say to her supporters that it was all worthwhile. What she didn’t get this time, she’ll get the next time, she'll say.

But selling that will be a lot easier than her next battle, when she decides which side she’s on. Is it with a government bent on controlling – even for a time – the wages of the working men and women in the province’s hospitals, schools, daycares and government agencies? Those are the very people she says she working for now to make the budget fairer.