McGuinty threatens an election after budget bill ‘gutted’

June 15, 2012 - All News

Ontario voters face a July 19 provincial election unless the opposition New Democrats or Progressive Conservatives blink over a budget showdown, warn the minority Liberals.
In the most serious political crisis ever faced by Premier Dalton McGuinty’s three-term government, the Liberals’ spending plan was “gutted” Thursday by Tory and NDP MPPs at the finance committee.
The two parties used their 5-4 majority there to ambush the Liberals, removing key “schedules” from the budget bill that Finance Minister Dwight Duncan fears could cost the treasury billions of dollars by limiting privatization of public services.
That led the premier to threaten to pull the plug on his government, which was re-elected Oct. 6, with a visit to Lieutenant Governor David Onley next week to advise him the Liberals no longer have confidence of the house.
Such a move, circumventing a budget vote scheduled for next Wednesday, would plunge Ontario into a rare summer election.
McGuinty blamed NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, with whom he reached a budget deal on April 23, for leaving the Liberals “with absolutely no choice.”
“We will be forced to take this to the people,” he said in a statement issued after what sources say was a “terse” phone conversation with Horwath.
“The consequences of the NDP’s latest backtrack would hurt our economy when what it needs most is stability and certainty. Andrea Horwath and her party have … broken their word about passing this budget.”
Horwath countered that she “made it clear that I would not rubberstamp the government’s 300-page omnibus bill,” while stressing she is not trying to force a $150-million vote nine months after the last one.
“The premier is threatening an election. I am disappointed. I expect the premier to keep his word. People don’t want an election at this time. I don’t want an election at this time.”
While the New Democrats had long maintained they would try to amend the budget bill, the Conservatives surprised many by supporting the left-leaning party’s initiatives.
“We’re against the budget, plain and simple,” said Tory MPP Vic Fedeli (Nipissing), adding the Liberals suffered a rude awakening at the finance committee.
“It has finally come to their acknowledgement that they don’t have a majority. They generally operate as if they have a majority but today it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that five beats four,” said Fedeli.
The finance minister was furious over the politicking, noting the Tories were voting against measures that they campaigned in favour of last fall.
“It’s in their platform. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Duncan, who is trying to pay off a $15-billion deficit and return the books to balance by 2017-18.
“They’ve effectively gutted the budget bill. It will dramatically affect the fiscal plan,” he said, predicting the changes could cost billions and could hurt Ontario in the eyes of wary debt-rating agencies.
“We’re going to an election unless these schedules are back in the budget bill. This is very serious.”
The finance committee next meets Monday morning so that’s likeliest the earliest the amendments could be reconsidered.
But NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson said Thursday night his party had no plans to back down and questioned Duncan’s claims the amendments would hurt the treasury.
“Privatizing all kinds of services would cost us more money. This has nothing to do with the fiscal plan,” said Bisson.
“This is not a brinksmanship thing. We’re not playing games here.”
Tory MPP Monte McNaughton (Lambton-Kent-Middlesex) said his party would not be helping the Liberals out of their budget jam.
“We’ve been clear since day one that we’re not going to support the budget. It’s going to be up to the NDP and the Liberals to sort out,” said MacNaughton.
Duncan said if the budget bill, which was already amended for an NDP-demanded tax increase on people making more than $500,000 a year, is not restored to its 327-page form, McGuinty would see Onley late Monday or Tuesday.
That would set the stage for the July 19 election.
“Cancel your summer plans,” a senior Liberal warned late Thursday.
Sources said Grit campaign officials were ready to go if the campaign buses roll next week.
The Liberals and the New Democrats each owe less than $3 million from the Oct. 6 election while the Tories have a $4.2 million debt.
In the 107-member legislature, the minority Liberals have 52 seats — excluding Speaker Dave Levac —compared to 36 for the Tories and 17 for the NDP. There is a vacancy in Kitchener-Waterloo.
— Torstar News Service