TORONTO – Still basking in the glow of an unexpected majority mandate, Premier Kathleen Wynne isn’t wasting any time putting Ontario’s newly elected politicians back to work.
The legislature will return July 2 with a speech from the throne and a new cabinet, she said Friday. The governing Liberals will also reintroduce the same budget that triggered the election.
“I’m very eager to move to implement the plan that we brought forward, the plan to invest in this province and to build it up,” Wynne said.
The $130.4-billion budget aims to stimulate the economy with big spending, including $29 billion for public transit, roads and bridges over a decade, $2.5 billion in corporate grants to lure businesses to Ontario and better wages for workers in health care and education.
It also promised a made-in-Ontario pension plan, which became a political football with the federal Conservatives during the campaign.
Wynne has made it clear that she’ll put public services ahead of wrestling down Ontario’s massive $12.5-billion deficit, although she’s still promising to eliminate it in three years.
Meeting that target will require some serious spending restraint and Wynne hasn’t specified where the cuts will be made. Credit-rating agencies are looking for details too, with Moody’s saying the larger-than-expected deficits over the next two years represent a “credit negative” for Ontario.
“I’m fully aware of the challenges in front of us,” Wynne said.
It’s important to make the investments outlined in the budget, but also important to remain fiscally prudent, she added.
“We have to make sure that we do everything that we have said we will do and make that target to eliminate the deficit by 2017-2018 a reality.”
Wynne’s shift to the left worked to her advantage during the campaign, allowing her to woo NDP supporters who feared a slash-and-burn Tory government. She also pounced on the Progressive Conservatives’ plan to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs as an economic catastrophe in waiting.
Unions who put out ads denouncing Tory Leader Tim Hudak over his austerity plan are taking credit for the Liberal victory, and expecting Wynne to reciprocate.
“The Liberals should work to improve the budget introduced last month, while following through on their promises of a public pension that mirrors the Canada Pension Plan, wage increases for vulnerable workers and investment in infrastructure,” Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan said in a statement.
“Ontarians have rejected Hudak’s radical and rash fiscal approach, and now further cuts to public services and privatization should be abandoned.”
But Wynne said voters expect their government to follow through on its promises, including balancing the budget.
“Part of that is making sure that we are wise and prudent with their dollars, because they’re hard earned and the fiscal situation in this province is a challenge, but I know that we are up to it,” she said.
Wynne said the all-party legislative committee examining the costly cancellation of two gas plants will be able to write its report and advise the government on how to ensure such mistakes don’t happen again.
The committee was disbanded with the election call, which erased any possible finding of contempt against the Liberals for the deletion of emails related to the gas plants and alleged wiping of hard drives in the premier’s office.
It also scuttled the planned appearance of two important witnesses, including a tech expert who allegedly had access to those hard drives.
All standing committees will be reconstituted with a new mandate, but the opposition parties will no longer be able to control them.
It’s up to the committee to decide whether it will hear more testimony, Wynne said.
“Remember that the committee has seen hundreds of thousands of pages of documents,” she said.
Wynne also suggested she won’t drop her $2-million lawsuit against Hudak and the Conservatives for claiming she may have covered up the deletion of gas plants documents, which police are investigating.
The Tories were licking their wounds Friday and dissecting the campaign that saw them lose 10 seats. Hudak announced he’d resign as soon as the party chooses a replacement.
Tory insiders insisted they didn’t see the Liberal majority coming and had been convinced they could squeeze out a PC minority government or at least hold the Liberals to another minority.
Despite insisting their polling didn’t show any signs the campaign was in trouble, some in the PC war room encouraged Hudak to “go negative” a couple of weeks ago and start hitting Wynne hard over the gas plants scandal, according to party sources.
But Hudak rejected the idea so he could keep delivering a positive message focused on his Million Jobs Plan, and they believe it was his pledge to cut jobs that scared voters away, the sources said.
Toronto councillor Doug Ford, who wouldn’t rule out a leadership run, pulled no punches in his assessment.
“I think the PC party needs an enema from top to bottom,” he said.
“You can’t go after union members. You can’t tell people that you’re going to be fired, 100,000 people.”
Ford said the result showed that people in Ontario are willing to give politicians second chances, which he said bodes well for his troubled brother Rob Ford, who is currently in rehab but hopes to be re-elected as Toronto’s mayor.
Other names have been kicked around as possible leadership contenders, including PC party president Richard Ciano, federal cabinet ministers Lisa Raitt and Tony Clement, and provincial MPPs Lisa MacLeod, Christine Elliott and Vic Fedeli.
The former North Bay mayor, who was re-elected in his Nipissing riding, said it’s too early to start talking about a possible leadership bid.
“This is all so fresh, it happened last night,” Fedeli said.
“The party has a lot of rebuilding to do, and a lot of soul searching to do as well, but the thing is we’ve got four years, so I don’t think anybody’s going to rush into anything.”
Fedeli said the PC caucus would meet in the near future to assess what happened to them during the campaign and decide how they want to proceed as a party.