TORONTO - The Progressive Conservatives insist controversial legislation that will force new contracts on thousands of Ontario teachers will become law, but the minority Liberals say they want the Tories' support in writing.
Opposition Leader Tim Hudak tried to clear up his party's position on the bill Friday after days of dropping hints that he's willing to work with the Liberals to pass the legislation.
"We're not playing games here," he said. "This bill is going to go through and we're going to support initiatives that truly go about what the PC party has been calling for for some time."
The Liberals have finally seen the light after months of Tory preaching that the province must legislate wage freezes for all public sector workers to battle a $15-billion deficit, Hudak said.
"For some time it's like we're beating our heads against a wall of a government that thinks it can continue to throw money at every problem out there," he said. "I'm proud to see a crack. We've broken through that wall. Now I'm going to press for more."
The legislation aims to rein in wages and cut benefits, such as halving sick days to 10 a year, as well as banning lockouts and strikes. Three unions have accepted the agreement, but three others representing 191,000 workers oppose it and have vowed to fight the bill.
Hudak said he still has some reservations about the bill, because it's based on the province's agreement with English Catholic teachers which still allows many instructors to get pay raises as they gain more experience.
"We've got some work to be done to make sure there are no back doors, no loopholes, but I want to see the kids in school," he said, adding that his party may put forward some amendments to the bill.
Hudak said the Tories will stick to their principles — unlike the Liberals and NDP — but wouldn't say whether his party will stand up and vote for the legislation or simply sit it out, which would still allow it to become law.
"If it hits our stress test, we'll support it," he said. "If it doesn't we vote against it, but those are the guys who cast aside principles, we stand proudly on ours."
The Tories have no interest in making a deal in exchange for their co-operation, Hudak said.
"If you're looking for the Monty Hall party ... if you're looking for the party that is going to sacrifice principles and cast them aside, that's the other two parties," he said.
"We saw that kind of soap opera and the budget in the almost falling out of the so-called 'happy marriage' between the Liberals and the NDP back in June."
The NDP ended up abstaining from the final vote on the budget bill after wringing a number of concessions from the Liberals. The budget passed, averting an election.
The teacher's bill isn't a confidence motion that could topple the government, which means the stakes are lower this time around and there's less pressure to broker a deal. But the Liberals still need the Tories' help, since the NDP opposes the legislation.
Government house leader John Milloy said he's "skeptical" that the Tories will actually help pass the legislation because Hudak is sending mixed signals.
"After weeks of criticism and watching the Ontario PCs turn themselves into pretzels, Tim Hudak now says the bill is going to pass," Milloy said.
"But when he was asked what that means, he wouldn't say."
The Liberals learned the hard way about trusting opposition parties when the New Democrats teamed up with the Tories to make further changes to the budget bill, Milloy said.
After one failed marriage, the Liberals have learned their lesson and want a pre-nup.
"The house returns on Monday and it's time to put pen to paper," Milloy said.
"I guess what we're saying — to quote him — is this isn't Monty Hall, this isn't a corner store or flea market where they can come in and pick and choose," he said.
Milloy said he's not sure how long it will take for the bill to wind its way through the legislature, even if the Tories support it.
If they win two byelections set for Sept. 6, the Liberals will have a majority government and won't need anyone's support.
The New Democrats still haven't said whether they'll support or oppose the legislation. But asking another party to put something in writing is "ridiculous," said NDP house leader Gilles Bisson.
The Liberals are trying to create a crisis in education to divert attention from other issues, like jobs and the economy, he said.
"The Liberals are always the same," Bisson said. "It's about doing what's right for them and not necessarily what's right for Ontarians."
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