TORONTO - The Liberals appointed veteran Conservative Elizabeth Witmer to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in hopes of winning the one seat they need to form a majority government, the NDP charged Monday.
Witmer surprised everyone but the Liberals Friday when she suddenly quit after 22 years as a member of provincial parliament — and just seven months after the last election — to accept the nomination to the top job at the WSIB.
The timing was right for her personally, Witmer told reporters Monday after being praised by all three party leaders in the legislature.
"At any time anything can happen in politics, and my decision was based on where I am in my life and my career," said Witmer.
"It’s been a great experience and it’s tough to leave."
PC Leader Tim Hudak called the appointment a "curve ball" that he didn't see coming, admitting he did not get a heads-up from Witmer.
"It caught a lot of folks off guard," said Hudak.
"She called me Friday afternoon with the news, which obviously I greet with mixed feelings."
During question period, New Democrat Taras Natyshak said there was no doubt Witmer knew the WSIB from her time as labour minister, but questioned whether that was what got her the job.
"Did the premier appoint Miss Witmer based on her vision for the WSIB, or are they so desperate for a majority government they’re ready to play politics with this appointment?" asked Natyshak.
The Liberals fell one seat short of a majority last October, winning 53 seats compared to 54 seats of the combined Tories and NDP.
The hope of winning that one seat to form a majority government is what prompted the Liberals to lure Witmer with the WSIB job, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"Liz Witmer is a capable woman, she’s got a lot of skills obviously, but we don’t share her vision of the WSIB," said Horwath.
"It used to be that the Liberals didn’t have the same vision as Liz Witmer either when it comes to the WSIB, so that begs the question exactly why was Liz Witmer chosen for this particular appointment."
Unlike Horwath, Hudak was not willing to accuse the Liberals of giving Witmer the WSIB job so they can force a byelection and try to win the one seat they need for a majority.
"Far be it from me to try and get inside (Premier) Dalton McGuinty’s head and guess what his motive is in this," said Hudak.
The Liberals weren't saying just when they might call a byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo to replace Witmer — McGuinty has up to six months to schedule the vote — but suggested they would not wait long.
"No decision has been made yet as to timing," said veteran Liberal Greg Sorbara, who serves as the party's campaign co-chairman.
"I always like them sooner rather than later."
Winning one more seat and getting a majority wouldn't really change things at Queen's Park, suggested Sorbara, because they would still have a Liberal Speaker, giving the government the same number of seats as the combined Tories and NDP for votes. The Speaker votes only in cases of a tie, and always with the government.
"If we were to win we’d have a theoretical majority with the vote of the Speaker, but this Parliament is actually getting along fairly well," said Sorbara.
"It doesn’t change the mandate that we received on Oct. 6, that is all three parties should work together."
It's clear the Liberals don't like working with others, and had to be forced into a deal with the NDP to get their budget approved, said Horwath.
"I think it’s obvious this government has resisted from Day 1 the minority situation, they weren’t willing to work together at all in the first several months," said Horwath.
"So of course that’s something the Liberals are looking to try to get out of that situation."