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Ontario legislature dominated by gas plants, public-sector wage freeze

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks with reporters prior to her first question period at Queen's Park, Feb. 20, 2013

TORONTO, Ont. – The ghosts of previous premiers haunt the Ontario legislature.

When business resumed at Queen’s Park Wednesday, Conservative Leader Tim Hudak brought up Dalton McGuinty as he pushed for a public-sector wage freeze — picking up where he left off four months ago.

“How are you going to balance the budget if you keep going down the Dalton McGuinty path?”

“Are you telling us today that the wage freeze is now off the table altogether?” Hudak asked.

But Premier Kathleen Wynne did not play along.

“The premise of this question is there is only one way to be fiscally responsible,” she said. “I reject that.”

Wynne said there are wage constraints in place and that is what her government will continue to pursue. But she did not directly answer Hudak’s question about whether wage freezes are now off the table.

“Wage constraint is in place,” Wynne said. “We have been working on that and we are having success.”

She also reminded MPPs about the Conservative reign of Mike Harris.

“A party that undermined our publicly-funded education system, Mr. Speaker. A party that undermined our public health system, Mr. Speaker,” she said.

“A party that did not pay attention to the needs of the people in this province.”

Wynne remains hopeful that the minority Liberals can find common ground with the opposition parties.

On Tuesday, the Tories slammed her throne speech and said they would not support it.

The New Democrats agreed to vote in favour of the throne speech but issued a budget ultimatum.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she will withdraw support if the spring budget doesn’t meet her demands, which could collapse the minority Liberals.

“The premier’s got some fundamental choices that she has to make,” she said.

“I’ve made it clear what I think the priorities of this province should be and what I think will help the average families in Ontario.”

People often bring demands to the table, but that’s just the starting point, Wynne said.

As talks continue, they’ll find some common ground, such as tackling youth unemployment, she said.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa added fuel to the fire when he wouldn’t utter the words “wage freeze” outside the legislative chamber.

“All of us have to do our part, and I am encouraging that our discussions going forward will result in zero,” he said.

But Sousa managed to find the words a few hours later, when his staff issued a statement.

“The fiscal plan contains no room for incremental increases in compensation,” he said in the statement. “That’s a wage freeze.”

Sousa said he will consider the NDP’s demands, which include a 15 per cent cut to auto insurance premiums, $30 million to eliminate homecare waiting lists and a guarantee that no seniors would have to wait more than five days for homecare.

They also want the Liberals to close $1.3 billion in corporate tax loopholes and spend $200 million to create jobs for youth.

The throne speech touched on those issues, but the NDP said it was too vague and didn’t provide any details.

Sousa said he’ll also reach out to the Tories and the broader public ahead of the budget.

“In the end, this budget has to reflect the needs of the public,” he said.

“Every decision has to be around the creation of jobs, and I think those are things that we share in common and those are the things I’ll be addressing.”

But the Tories haven’t shown much enthusiasm for budget talks, saying they need to see a major shift from the Liberals to create jobs and reduce the province’s staggering debt.

Hudak won’t say the word “election,” but he has said the only way to rescue the province from financial ruin is to “change the team.”