OTTAWA - Ontario's Liberals are backing embattled Premier Dalton McGuinty's leadership, despite disappointing electoral results and a looming battle with former union allies who are furious over new legislation to freeze wages.
McGuinty received the endorsement of 85.8 per cent of delegates who voted in a leadership review at the party's convention in Ottawa on Saturday. The review was automatically triggered after last October's election that reduced the Liberals to a minority government.
It was better than Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who received an endorsement of 78.7 per cent in February, and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath's 76.4 per cent in April.
Before his staff revealed the results, the premier reassured the party faithful that while things may seem rocky now, they had to weather the storm and stay the course to tackle a $15-billion deficit.
"We've been through tough times before," McGuinty said, pointing to the introduction of the health premium of up to $900 per worker in 2004 or harmonizing sales taxes in 2010.
"This is but one more. Now is not the time for stopping. Now's the time to keep fighting for Ontario Liberal values."
It'll take time for public sector workers to understand that a wage freeze is necessary to protect Ontario's cherished public services, he said after his 30-minute speech.
"This is not a time, so to speak, where we are kind of bridling with enthusiasm," McGuinty said.
"It's a time for sobriety. It's a time for coming to a recognition, and if not enthusiastic support, a quiet acceptance of our reality and what responsibilities we have to take on."
But that message didn't go over well with teachers who picketed outside the downtown Ottawa hotel and convention centre where the Liberals were holding their annual general meeting. Some wore t-shirts bearing McGuinty's likeness and his oft-repeated quote that he'd respect the collective bargaining process.
Unions representing most of the teachers and education workers in the province are at war with the Liberals, upset over a new law that will cut their benefits, rein in wages and give the government the power — over at least two years — to stop strikes and lockouts.
Public servants, nurses and other workers have joined the fight over additional legislation — yet to be introduced — that could potentially impose new collective agreements and restrict their right to strike.
It has alienated the base of support the Liberals have counted on to help them get re-elected over the past nine years, said Progressive Conservative Lisa MacLeod. The Tories, who have been calling for across-the-board wage freeze legislation for months, aren't worried that they'll lose support, now that McGuinty is moving to the right after caving to the demands of his "union buddies" since 2003.
"I think he's actually trying to be more like Tim Hudak ... and I don't think people will buy that," she said.
McGuinty said many public servants support their wage freeze, which isn't a matter of "political calculation" but something that's essential to protect Ontario's cherished public services. He expressed confidence that he'll win back their support.
"We're going to get that back, we're going to get that goodwill back," McGuinty said.
"They understand that this is something we need to do, and that the government's trying to be as fair and responsible as we can be."
If a government has to keep explaining why it's doing something, it's because they haven't heard the public, said NDP house leader Gilles Bisson.
"The public is infinitely more wise than we the politicians sometimes accept," he said. "And when the public says you're wrong, maybe you should accept you're wrong and try something different."
Despite McGuinty's optimistic tone, the Liberals haven't had much to celebrate over the last year.
They were downgraded to a minority last October, then failed to win the one seat they needed for a majority in two recent byelections.
The Liberals hung on to their seat in Vaughan, but came in third in Kitchener-Waterloo — a byelection McGuinty engineered by giving longtime Conservative Elizabeth Witmer a plum position at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
Adding to their troubles are the recent scandal over Ontario's troubled Ornge air ambulance service and the controversy surrounding the party's $230 million decision to cancel two gas plants in Liberal ridings that appeared to be in jeopardy.
The legislation is now embroiled in a debate over whether Energy Minister Chris Bentley showed contempt for the legislature by fighting a committee's request to release documents on the two power plants planned for Oakville and Mississauga. The Tories' contempt motion is blocking all other legislative business, including the daily question period, until the debate — which has no time limit — finally ends.
McGuinty jumped to Bentley's defence in his speech, calling the accusations "mean-spirited" and "groundless."
"What the opposition is trying to do to Minister Bentley dishonours them and it dishonours our legislature, a place where we're all called upon to be honourable members," he said, triggering a standing ovation.
The display of support didn't go over well with Bisson.
"I just heard standing ovations as though it was a virtue to say that it was OK to spend taxpayers' money essentially to save a number of seats," Bisson said.
"I think the government should be a little more humble and recognize that they've done some things wrong and try to adjust."