HAMILTON - As the Ontario election campaign enters the home stretch, speculation over the NDP's role in an increasingly likely minority government scenario has the provincial Tories worried about "backroom deals" between their political rivals.
The Progressive Conservatives' concerns were voiced Saturday, just hours after NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she would soon spell out her key priorities for forming government.
All signs currently point to a minority despite Premier Dalton McGuinty's push for a third consecutive Liberal majority and PC leader Tim Hudak's call for change at the provincial legislature.
"I am concerned that Dalton McGuinty is the kind of guy who does cut backroom deals," Hudak said at a campaign stop in Port Colborne in the Niagara region. "I have no idea if there's discussions going on as we speak. I'm not engaged in those discussions. I'm going to actually let voters decide."
Horwath has also repeatedly said she would wait to see what voters decide on Thursday, but also said her party's bottom line for office was "coming very soon."
"We're going to be a little bit more specific in the next day or so about what we want to see as priorities if we were to form a government in this province," she said at a campaign stop in Kingsville, Ont., on Saturday morning.
The latest polls — including one conducted by Environics Research Group and provided exclusively to The Canadian Press — have the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives in a dead heat with the New Democrats gaining ground. The results suggest Ontario could end up with a minority government for the first time in 26 years.
That means the balance of power would likely end up in the NDP's hands with Horwath in the position of playing kingmaker after Thursday's vote.
Horwath has so far refused to say which party she would support in a minority government, but said the NDP will be "making very clear" what it would like to accomplish if they "were to be in the position of being in the seat of government."
Over the course of the campaign the NDP has been focused on promising better health care, more jobs and pocketbook relief for everyday families in Ontario.
"(Voters) know very clearly what New Democrats are fighting for, what we want to see in terms of change in this province," said Horwath.
When asked if she had been making contact with any of the other parties in anticipation of a minority, Horwath simply said she was focused on talking to voters.
"My priority is letting people know they have a positive choice," she said.
Meanwhile, McGuinty was evasive when asked about a minority scenario.
"I'm willing to work with the people of Ontario," the Liberal leader said at a campaign stop in Cornwall, Ont. "What I'm asking them for is a strong, solid Liberal government. That's what we're working for."
McGuinty later laughed off a question about whether he'd stay on as party leader if his party failed to form a majority.
The Liberals have been trying to style themselves as an experienced party that will steer the province through rough economic waters ahead. But the Tories have pummelled them over their fiscal management and tax records, saying a PC government is needed to bring refreshing change to a financially burdened province.
"People want change and the reality is there's only one option," said Hudak. "If you want more taxes, if you want bigger government, if the top three words in your vocabulary are spend, spend, spend then vote for Dalton McGuinty or Andrea Horwath. The Ontario PCs have a different view."
The comments from the Conservative camp prompted Horwath to say Ontarians are tired of being told how to vote.
"They're tired of being told they only have the choice of the status quo parties that have taken them for granted and let them down," she said. "What they do deserve is the respect for us all to wait and see what their decision is."
While she has played coy about who she might support in a minority, Horwath has hailed the progress of an NDP-backed Liberal government in the mid-1980s earlier in the campaign.
David Peterson's Liberals and the NDP, then led by Bob Rae, signed an accord after the Tories won a minority mandate in 1985. Rae agreed to support a Liberal government in office for two years in exchange for the Liberals supporting some of the NDP's policies.
That alliance led to the defeat of the PC government and cleared the way for Peterson's Liberals to take power.
Despite all the talk of a minority Saturday, Horwath made efforts to emphasize that she was still in a race to defeat her political rivals.
"I'm still running to be running to be the premier of this province," she said. "We're getting more and more momentum, more and more wind under our wings, and I think we have to give people a chance to make that decision."
Without speculating on what the political landscape might look like after Thursday's vote, Horwath added that she'd continue to fight for Ontarians at the legislature whether she was in government or on the Opposition benches.
"Regardless of which decision they make, they can trust that I'm going to be there for them," she said.
The Environics poll for the Canadian Press found 36 per cent of the respondents surveyed said they'd back the Progressive Conservatives, 35 per cent said they'd support the Liberals and 25 per cent said they'd back the New Democrats.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version reported Ontario's last coalition was 16 years ago.