Queens Park Watch: Negotiating the Budget
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Queens Park Watch: Negotiating the Budget

The liberal "austerity" budget isn't making the opposition parties especially happy, but it won't trigger an election.

With the provincial budget finally delivered to everyone’s dissatisfaction, the horse-trading required to pass it has begun.

Budgets, of course, are a confidence vote. That means that with the Liberals running a minority government, at least two opposition MPPs have to support the budget (or indirectly allow it to pass by staying home), otherwise Ontarians get leafletted, canvassed, robo-called, and annoyed into apathy by campaigning candidates and their minions.

Tory leader Tim Hudak categorically rejected the budget moments after its delivery with a robotic repetition of prearranged irrelevancies (“30 billion dollar deficit! No jobs plan!”), so the Premier doesn’t even have to pretend to listen to him.

That leaves Andrea Horwath and the NDP left to engage in the give and take that will decide whether we go to the polls. Dalton McGuinty has tacitly signalled that the Grits are open to an informal entente with the NDP, by including in the budget the postponement of planned corporate tax cuts, and excluding anything so patently obnoxious to NDP values that it would force an election. (The proposed public sector wage freeze, for instance, is listed in the budget as a goal, but would not be passed automatically when the budget is, leaving the NDP room to oppose it later.)

Horwath, for her part, already made her requests clear in a public letter to the Liberals back on March 9. The NDP wish list is for the most part ill-suited to deficit fighting, and includes more investment in infrastructure, “enhanced” home-care hours, and the removal of HST from home heating bills. The principal nod to cost-cutting would be a hard cap on executive compensation, which would be a popular move among the NDP base but wouldn’t amount to any meaningful savings (the Liberals have proposed a two-year salary freeze, but haven’t addressed the question of what to do about bonuses).

The New Democrats are also raising a stink about Grit plans to privatise the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, which provides train and bus services to and around Northern Ontario. The Liberals are unlikely to back down on this one, as ONTC subsidies have risen from $28 million in 2003-04 to $103 million this year without any commensurate increase in ridership. More cynically, most northern ridings went NDP in the last election anyway, so there’s not much for the Grits to lose.

While the backroom negotiation ramps up, the Dippers have set up a website and a toll-free line so working people, the bored, and the insane can weigh in with their thoughts on the budget (pity the apparatchik or co-op student tasked with filtering what will undoubtedly be hours of pranks, rage, and gibberish; “Please to be buying me a new hat thank you” “SUBWAYS! I WANT SUBWAYS!”). While this process won’t add any value to the process of budget modification, it allows Horwath to claim that whatever she agrees to was only settled after “consultation” with the people of the province.

And settle she will. Ultimately the public face of the budget process is a puppet show designed to let the parties reinforce their public image: the Tories are tough and don’t take any crap, the NDP are kind but determined, and the Liberals are hoping to be both.

No one wants an election. All three parties are still in debt from October, and the 49 per cent of the electorate who vote are likely to punish anyone who tries to get us off the couch only six months after the last time we went to the polls.

The elegant dance will come to an end, an accommodation will be reached, and both NDP and Liberals will grumble a bit while Tim Hudak shakes his head sadly and calls down muttered curses on windfarms and civil servants. And the government will pass its budget.

So hush, Ontario, go back to sleep, for you will not be called upon to vote this year. Enjoy your austerity.