TORONTO - The Progressive Conservatives are willing to work with the minority Liberals to pass controversial legislation that would impose new contracts on Ontario teachers, Opposition Leader Tim Hudak suggested Wednesday.
The Liberals need the help of at least one of the opposition parties on the proposed bill, which would also ban lockouts and strikes.
Hudak was cryptic about whether the Tories will provide that support, saying he'd prefer an immediate legislated wage freeze for all public sector workers.
But he hinted that he might be willing to settle for less, paraphrasing one of his political idols, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.
"We're going to be very reasonable and fair about this," Hudak said. "My approach on these things is if you get half a loaf, you take it, and then you press for more."
He said he also wants to make sure the bill doesn't have any "loopholes" or "back doors" that would increase spending, such as contracts that allowed 98 per cent of senior civil servants to get bonuses last year.
"Look, I'm confident that we can actually make sure that students are in school the first day of the year," Hudak said. "That's going to be our focus."
Education Minister Laurel Broten said she's glad Hudak's willing to talk.
"The openness to working with our government is not something that we have seen before," she said. "So absolutely, I am encouraged by that."
The Tories ended up on the sidelines last spring when the Liberals reached a deal with the New Democrats to help pass the budget bill in exchange for some concessions.
The NDP abstained from the final budget vote, allowing it to become law. The Tories could do the same if they don't get everything they want.
It's the first sign of support for the bill, which has pitted the Liberals against a group that has provided substantial financial support to the party in past election campaigns.
The New Democrats have signalled they won't support it, saying it will spark a lengthy legal battle with teachers that could end up costing millions of dollars.
"It's no surprise that Tim Hudak is prepared to be just as reckless as Dalton McGuinty, after all a legislated wage freeze was his idea in the first place, but neither of them are willing to admit the real costs," NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson said in a statement.
The government should "roll up their sleeves" and work through the collective bargaining process to get a deal, he added.
But the Liberals said they tried talks over the last six months, but the province's most powerful teachers' unions walked away from the table and never returned.
If passed, the new bill would force contracts on teachers that would rein in wages and cut benefits, which the Liberals say will help them eliminate a $15-billion deficit.
It would impose terms that mirror the framework agreement the government reached with English Catholic teachers, including three unpaid days off and elimination of the banking of sick days that can be cashed out at retirement.
The Tories have slammed the agreement, saying it doesn't really freeze wages because many teachers will still get raises as they move up the salary grid, which rewards experience and better qualifications.
Two unions representing francophone teachers and other school support workers have accepted the deal, but three other unions oppose it.
School boards — the employers — still have to sign local contracts with teachers and other education workers. The government has given them until the end of the month to do so, or have a deal forced on them through legislation.
The Liberals insist it must be done before Sept. 1 to ensure old contracts don't automatically roll over, which the cash-strapped province can't afford.
Two of the province's largest Catholic school boards — the Toronto Catholic District School Board and York Catholic District School Board — have signed on to the framework agreement, Broten said.
The boards collectively serve about 148,000 students in 301 schools in the Greater Toronto Area.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario are holding a news conference Thursday to discuss the legislation, which is expected to be introduced next week.