TORONTO - Ontario's political leaders were already looking forward to the next provincial election Friday, just hours after the polls closed on five provincial byelections that cost the governing Liberals three long-held seats.
The New Democrats were the big winners Thursday, taking two seats from the Liberals in Windsor and London, while the Progressive Conservatives made a much-needed breakthrough in Toronto by winning their first seat in the city since 1999.
Opposition Leader Tim Hudak dismissed critics who said the Tories should have done much better given the scandals that have rocked the Liberals and the fact byelections are usually a time for people to register protest votes against a government.
"Would I have liked to win more ridings? Absolutely," Hudak told reporters.
"We had the most votes across the province, the most votes in the city of Toronto, and that's going to translate into big gains whenever we get around to this next election."
The Liberals managed to hold on to former premier Dalton McGuinty's old seat in Ottawa South and the Toronto suburb of Scarborough-Guildwood.
Premier Kathleen Wynne admitted voters sent a message that they were upset at the secretive way the Liberals spent $585 million to cancel gas plants prior to the 2011 election to try to save their own seats.
"People are angry, particularly about the gas plant issue. They're angry that money was wasted ... and they might even be angrier because of the process surrounding the information flow," Wynne told reporters.
"I believe that the byelections were about recent past events, and I think that the next general election will be about the future."
However, the opposition parties weren't about to let Wynne turn the page so quickly on the gas plants scandal, which will heat up again when committee hearings into the issue resume Tuesday, and again later in the month when the auditor general releases a report on the cost of scrapping the Oakville project.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said voters were clearly fed up with an "arrogant" government mired in scandals, but she still wasn't ready to say the New Democrats will join with the Tories to defeat the minority government at the first opportunity.
"There's no guarantees, and we're going to take it one day at a time," said Horwath.
"There's more information coming it feels like every week on the gas plants scandal, the committee is going to start work again next week, and the auditor general is going to be reporting, so it's one day at a time as far as the future goes."
The Tories were beaming after taking Toronto's Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding from the Liberals, and said all the byelection results show voters want the government to be defeated as soon as possible.
"These were Liberal strongholds, and I think there's a very clear message that people are rejecting the Liberal approach that got us deep in debt and has cost us jobs," said Hudak.
"I hope that (Horwath) also heard the very clear message that the voters sent that they want change. I believe it's time to give voters that choice right across our province, not just in five ridings."
Horwath said only that she would be "very surprised" if the minority government survived until the next scheduled election in 2015.
There appears to be little chance for the opposition parties to defeat the Liberals in a confidence vote before the provincial budget next spring. They could introduce a non-confidence motion, but it would be up to the governing Liberals to call it for a vote in the legislature.