The McGuinty Liberals have survived the first major test of their minority government with the indirect help of the Andrea Horwath New Democrats. Absent, by their own choosing, from the discussions were the Tim Hudak Progressive Conservatives. So, Ontario will carry on for a little while longer without having to go back to the polls to seek a new government.
There are certain expectations in our system of democracy. If a multi-party system exists, sometimes none of the parties emerges as the clear winner, as the current case in Ontario shows, resulting in a minority government. The party with the most seats is expected to take the reins knowing that a combination of votes by the opposing parties on a critical legislation can result in a defeat. This scenario sets up an opportunity for a vote of confidence in the governing party which almost always sets up a defeat of the governing party, thus sending the electorate back to the polls.
The electorate on the other hand does not want to keep going back to the polls every few months. Apart from the inherent costs of running an election, there is a danger that the economy will suffer from the lack of leadership which ensues, not to mention the frustrations of the electorate in enduring another campaign so quickly after the previous one. The party that, in the mind of the electorate, caused this second election could be held accountable and could suffer as a result.
All this is to say that every effort should be made to find common ground among the parties to avoid an election.
What happened in the recent events at Queen’s Park is that the Progressive Conservative Party, which emerged as the main opposition in the last election, was not willing to play that game. No compromises. Immediately as the budget was released, PC leader Hudak decided to take his ball and go home. What he wanted to see in the budget, according to him, was not there, so he announced that he would not be supporting the government.
The third party New Democrats, led by Howarth, also decided that the budget as presented was tough to support. Howarth, however, took a different approach. She immediately launched a telephone hotline to seek response from the public on the budget as well as province-wide consultations to get feedback. In the end, she backed off one of her toughest demands, removing the HST from home heating, but gained another tough agreement on increased taxes on those earning $500,000 or more.
As with all negotiations, one starts with the premise that one puts forward one’s strongest demand at the top of the list. One also has a position established which is considered a “deal-breaker” – that demand which must be met to get an agreement.
It is safe to say that the Liberals would have put forward “feelers” to the PCs to see what their room for negotiations were. In the end, there was too much of a gulf between whatever the Liberals might have been prepared to offer and what the PCs were prepared to accept.
At the same time, the same overtures would have been made to the NDP. Because of its status as the third party, facing an election so quickly after the last one would probably have placed them in a less advantageous position. Thus, being able to come to an agreement that would see the survival of the Liberal government would have been more suitable.
There was another advantage. Because the Tories had been so definitive about not supporting the Liberal’s budget, the NDP could abstain from voting, either in support of or against the Liberals, and still get some of their demands met. As the finance minister pointed out, the NDP managed to have its cake and eat it too.
The most likely test of this relationship will perhaps not come until the next budget, unless the government decides later this year, based on public opinion polls, that it could introduce a policy that will challenge NDP principles.
Now, keep in mind that in all of these scenarios, the leaders do not make their decisions in a vacuum. All three parties have a bank of advisors with multiple public opinion skills and political savvy who they call on to give them the lay of the land and potential outcomes of decisions made. Howarth, from the outset, maintained the position that the NDP will endeavour to make the current minority situation work. The negotiations and eventual agreement that saw the Liberals survive the budget vote is a key evidence of that. So far, she may have earned the good graces of the electorate.
Meanwhile, one has to wonder if Hudak has not shot himself in the foot. The point-blank refusal to take part in negotiations to avoid an election, accompanied by what appears to be a fast-tracked program of preparing for one by holding several nomination meetings, does demonstrate an all-or-nothing approach that could be his undoing. Further, his preferred non-bargaining position was to balance the budget, seemingly at all costs, while lowering business taxes, which would place the weight of the economy on the shoulders of the hard-pressed working people of the province, not unlike what Mike Harris did in the mid-90s.
One has to also wonder whether the resignation of the well-respected veteran, Elizabeth Witmer, may have something to do with confidence in the Hudak direction of leadership.
By PATRICK HUNTER