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.
The 2012 Ontario budget freezes pay for doctors, and extends a pay freeze for health care executives. The province will begin means-testing seniors' prescription drugs, paid for under the Ontario Drug Benefit Plan, effectively meaning that the 5 per cent wealthiest seniors covered by the plan will have to pay more into the plan. Seniors with incomes over $100,000 and senior couples with combined incomes above $160,000 will be affected. Increases in health care spending will be capped at 2.1 per cent per year.
The budget freezes pay for teachers. A pay freeze for educational executives, already in place, will be extended. School boards in low-population areas will be amalgamated, and "under-utilized" schools will be shut. Student transportation will be cut by $34 million.
The province will begin means-testing seniors' prescription drugs, paid for under the Ontario Drug Benefit Plan, effectively meaning that the 5 per cent wealthiest seniors covered by the plan will have to pay more into the plan. Seniors with incomes over $100,000 and senior couples with combined incomes above $160,000 will be affected.
Welfare rates will be frozen and planned increases to the Ontario Child Benefit will be delayed.
There are no tax hikes in the 2012 Ontario budget, but it does freeze the corporate tax rate at 11.5 per cent, foregoing planned reductions in the tax rate to 10 per cent. The freeze is expected to save $1.5 billion over three years.
Ontario will cap the 10 per cent hydro bill rebate at 3,000 kilowatt-hours, a limit high enough that most homes won't be affected, but businesses could be. Reducing the tax credit will save $470 million over three years.
On top of the four jails the province already plans to close, the budget adds two more to the closure list -- one in Brantford and one in Chatham. Overtime for jail guards and the Ontario Provincial Police will be reduced.
Ontario plans to reduce spending on business support programs by $250 million by merging a number of different programs.
The province aims to increase revenue by increasing the number of gambling facilities. [Details to come]