HAMILTON - Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath walked a fine line Saturday, trying to keep delicate budget negotiations with the Liberal government on track while appeasing wolves in her party howling for another election.
New Democrats were urged Saturday to call Premier Dalton McGuinty's bluff and vote against the budget if the Liberals won't agree to withdraw the threat of a legislated wage freeze.
But Horwath said she's committed to working with the minority government rather than forcing another election.
Horwath attacked the budget for failing to make life more affordable for ordinary families during her keynote speech to the 800 delegates attending the party's convention in Hamilton, using the same themes she's been raising in negotiations with the Liberals to amend the fiscal blueprint to earn NDP support.
"We know that the people of Ontario sent us here with a job to do, which is to work together, to roll up our sleeves and try to get something done here," Horwath told reporters after her speech.
"That’s why I’m working to try and make the budget better and I’m going to do everything I can to make it happen, and I’m not going to pre-suppose where that’s going to end up at this point."
The NDP want the budget amended to lift the freeze on welfare rates, to put more money into home care and community care and to put a two percentage point surtax on incomes over $500,000.
"We think people who make half a million dollars a year can afford to pay a little more, and people who make less need a break," Horwath told the cheering delegates.
"Are we protecting tax rates for millionaires or working parents who need daycares?"
Horwath said she was still willing to work with the Liberals, even though the party is getting mixed messages from the public about forcing another election.
"A lot of people don't want an election, but many, many think it's worth having one over this budget," she said.
"The ball is now in the government's court."
Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan told delegates the NDP hold the balance of power in the minority government and the Liberals are "attempting to destroy the collective bargaining process" by threatening in the budget to impose a wage freeze on the public sector.
It's time to tell McGuinty the NDP won't back down on the wage freeze issue, urged Ryan.
"He’s acting as if he has a majority government when in fact he does not, and I think that Andrea needs to call his bluff, put it to the test, see if McGuinty is willing to call an election," he said.
"We should call him on it and say we’ve got some core principles in the NDP and in the labour movement and we’re not going to compromise just because Dalton McGuinty is threatening to call another election. If he does, let it be on his head."
Liberal MPP David Orazietti said the same unions that back the NDP's bank loans for the last election campaign want the party to force an election.
"I have to question who's calling the shots, who's making the decisions," Orazietti said in an interview.
"They are under tremendous pressure from the unions to call an election that is expensive and unnecessary."
The Conservatives have vowed to vote against the budget, so the Liberals need NDP support or the minority government will be defeated, triggering an election.
Earlier Saturday the delegates gave Horwath 76.4 per cent support in a leadership review, slightly lower than the support PC Leader Tim Hudak was given at the Conservatives' post-election convention.
"Three years ago when I was elected leader I was at just over 60 (per cent), so I’m headed in the right direction, let’s put it that way," joked Horwath. "I’m happy with the result."
NDP house leader Gilles Bisson said New Democrats are thrilled with Horwath's leadership after they nearly doubled their seat count last October in their best election showing in two decades.