05/01/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Andrea Horwath And The NDP Will Shape Ontario's Election Destiny


The "political" honeymoon was over some time ago for Premier Kathleen Wynne  — with or without the 2014 budget — likewise for NDP Leader Andrea Horwath — with or without the ideas she has campaigned on.

A day ahead of the provincial budget, Wynne seemed to lament her inability to bring Horwath to the table for one more conversation on the budget before the NDP leader decides how to react to it.

"I know the leader of the Opposition (Tim Hudak) has no interest in working with us. But I hope we (Horwath) will have an opportunity to meet because a lot hangs in the balance, including the building of infrastructure in this province."

That "infrastructure" reference was very deliberate, since it’ll be one of the centrepieces of the budget and something that Horwath has also talked about: the importance of improving Ontario roads, bridges and, transit.

The NDP leader has echoed a Liberal pledge, for example, to establish all-day, two-way GO service from Kitchener-Waterloo to Toronto.

But, she scoffed at Transportation Minister Glenn Murray’s promise to build high-speed rail, linking London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto.

So — for the woman her caucus calls the "Steeltown Scrapper," there is skepticism about what a meeting with the premier would accomplish, especially since the decision to support today’s budget or not will be her decision and hers alone and based, in part, on the budget, as well as a series of scandals that have now captured Horwath’s attention, believing they will damage the Liberal brand in general, and Wynne in particular.

The NDP leader has ramped up her rhetoric on the billion-dollar gas plant scandal and, more recently, safety issues with the Herb Gray Parkway in Windsor, where the party is confident of knocking off the Liberal incumbent in Windsor West, while holding Windsor Tecumseh and, Essex.

Citing what she calls "government documents," Horwath has accused the Liberals of being slow to react to improperly designed steel girders because of a provincial byelection and other problems, including questions about the quality of the concrete used — a not-so-subtle allegation that "politics trumped safety."

Wynne says her government responded quickly to the issues.

"If the leader of the third party is suggesting that we (the Liberals) would put people’s safety at risk, that is just not the case," a clearly agitated premier said Wednesday.

But, Horwath shot back: "We on this side of the House have learned to rely on the documents and not the words of Liberals."

That, and other allegations Horwath has made about Wynne and the government, seem to automatically point to a decision to topple the Liberals with the only weapon open to Horwath: today’s provincial budget.

But, the NDP leader has been anything but predictable since taking over the reins of the party in 2009.

Her resumé is impressive. She has doubled the NDP caucus over that time — with a strong performance in the 2011 general election — particularly during the leaders’ debate — and decisive wins in byelections in 2011, 2012 and last year in ridings without an NDP tradition.

But, the polls have not been kind to the NDP. The most recent by Nanos Research shows that while Horwath trails Wynne in the "make the best premier" category, she’s substantially ahead of PC Leader Tim Hudak.

Is she prepared then to risk all that? Is she prepared to miss her shot at being, at the very least, the Official Opposition — as a government-in-waiting?

Living by the old adage "you are judged by the company you keep" — in this case a scandal plagued-government that is accused of cavalierly spending taxpayers' money — Horwath’s answer may be yes.

But, then the "Steeltown Scrapper" may just decide to go a few more rounds in the legislature with Wynne — betting there is more scandal ahead or, as Hudak has suggested "Liberals in handcuffs."

Whatever direction Horwath goes, there are risks, so don’t expect a quick "yea" or "nay" on the Liberal budget, because while her party's future is at stake — so, too, is hers as leader.

But, Liberals at Queen’s Park will tell you, privately, they believe Horwath has decided their "best before date" has expired, and that it’s time to take them off the shelf in a provincial election.

If that happens, Horwath will test her support among her party's rank and file.

Labour is especially nervous at the prospect of a Harrisite government headed by Hudak.

And, some even admit to thoughts of "holding their nose" and voting Liberal to keep Hudak from his dream of becoming Ontario’s 26th premier.

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