NDP to propose Ontario budget changes, terms to support government

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath will have her first opportunity on Monday to respond formally to the budget in the legislature, when she tables a motion to amend the Liberals’ blueprint for digging the province out of deficit. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath will lay out her conditions for saving the minority Liberal government on Monday, when she unveils amendments to the Ontario budget.

The final shape of the amendments is subject to around-the-clock, behind-the-scenes talks set to begin shortly between NDP and Liberal officials. NDP insiders warn that the outcome is not cast in stone, but as things stand, Ms. Horwath has shown little interest in engineering the defeat of the government.

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The Liberals, for their part, demonstrated an openness to working with the NDP by leaving “poison pills” – measures that would alienate the NDP constituency – out of the budget.

So now, the party that finished third in the election five months ago plans to use its new clout to push for changes that would make the budget more in keeping with its core values. A cap on compensation for executives in the public sector is No. 1, NDP insiders say. But the party’s wish list also includes measures aimed at job creation, more community-based health care for the frail elderly, and relief for electricity consumers.

Ms. Horwath will have her first opportunity on Monday to respond formally to the budget in the legislature, when she tables a motion to amend the Liberals’ blueprint for digging the province out of deficit.

“Our motion has to be crafted in such a way that it can be supported,” one senior New Democrat said. “We have to do something that we hold deep in our soul.”

Ms. Horwath spelled out the key things she is looking for in a letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty on March 9. She wants tax credits for companies that hire new employees, and changes to the mining act to ensure that Ontario’s natural resources are processed in the province, the letter says. She is also calling for a bigger slice of health-care dollars to go to long-term care and home care, as well as a review of the province’s electricity sector to make power more affordable for consumers by reducing overlap among agencies.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said he is open to taking another look at executive compensation. The budget extends a salary freeze for public-sector executives by two more years, but does not touch their incentive pay.

“I would like to hear her ideas,” Mr. Duncan told reporters on Wednesday. “The one thing I do know: the people of this province do not want an election, not five months after the last one.”

However, he added, Ms. Horwath’s call for a hard cap on salaries “makes a good sound bite,” but the government has no control over employment contracts.

Ms. Horwath said the government’s efforts to rein in executive pay were a “half measure at best.”

The NDP Leader said Mr. McGuinty did not listen to any of her ideas before his government tabled this week’s budget, adding that the document was already printed when she met with him this month.

But now that the Progressive Conservatives have outright rejected the budget, the Liberals are in more of a mood to negotiate, the NDP insiders said. Neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats are anxious for a snap election, they said.

The budget already meets the NDP part way. The Liberals raised the idea of a legislated wage freeze for public-sector workers who bargain collectively. They also plan to require these employees to cover any shortfalls in their pension plans. But these poison-pill measures that target the NDP’s roots in the labour movement are not in the budget bill itself.

Ms. Horwath said it is not just up to her 17 caucus members to decide whether Ontarians go back to the polls. The NDP has set up a website and toll-free number (1-855-668-2348), inviting the public to comment on the budget.

As of 5:30 Wednesday afternoon, 1,000 e-mail and voice-mail responses had come in, running the gamut from those who don’t want an election to those who say the government has further marginalized the poor by freezing social-assistance rates.

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