For New Democrats, both federally and provincially, Andrea Horwath’s decision to force an Ontario election is fraught with danger.
The Ontario NDP leader’s motive is straightforward. She wants more New Democrats elected to the Ontario legislature, even if the result is a Conservative government
She calculates that her NDP can do better in an election now, when Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are mired in scandal over the gas plant fiasco, than they could later.
She may be right. Indeed, if the stars align correctly for Horwath, she could pull off a Bob Rae-style upset and become premier.
But if Ontarians follow their usual pattern, disaffected voters will coalesce around the default alternative which, in spite of the many gaffes committed by party leader Tim Hudak, remains the Progressive Conservatives.
And if Hudak becomes premier, a big swath of left-liberal voters will be furious with the NDP.
Such voters will be particularly irked because, on paper at least, Wynne’s Liberals have just served up the most attractive batch of budget proposals in decades.
The premier has promised to invest heavily in public transit. More important, she has proposed the country’s first serious retirement income scheme since the Canada Pension Plan was brought in almost half a century ago.
Hudak has made it clear that if his party wins, he will kill Wynne’s proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, pull back on ambitious infrastructure proposals, and make life miserable for unionized workers.
All of this raises echoes from the past — particularly from 2005, when Jack Layton’s federal New Democrats pulled the plug on Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government just as it was about to bring in a national child care program.
The subsequent federal election, it will be recalled, gave the NDP more seats. But it also introduced eight years of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper.
Horwath, like any third-party leader propping up a minority government, has had a tricky path to follow.
On the one hand, she has been able to push parts of her agenda, including raising taxes on the rich.
On the other she has been propping up a government mired in a scandal that never goes away.
So when Horwath says, as she did Friday, that she can no longer trust the Wynne Liberals to manage public funds, she is echoing the views of many voters.
The risk she faces is that, according to the polls, a big chunk of these disaffected voters are planning to support the party that has been leading the charge against Liberal profligacy — the Hudak Tories.
Put simply: If Ontarians decide that government mismanagement is the primary election issue, why would anyone expect them to vote NDP?
Conversely, if voters decide they want a so-called progressive government why would they prefer the vague, third-party New Democrats to Wynne’s Liberals who, at the very least, have in their budget plan an articulate program?
Clearly, left-leaning voters themselves have been asking these questions. The province’s union leadership is split. Public sector unions that have borne the brunt of Liberal cutbacks, such as the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, are anxious to dump Wynne.
However, UNIFOR, the country’s biggest private sector union, is more amenable to the Liberals (as was one of its predecessors, the Canadian Auto Workers). UNIFOR president Jerry Dias supported Wynne’s now-doomed budget.
The Ontario Federation of Labour is horrified by the prospect of Hudak’s anti-union Tories taking power. Sid Ryan, the umbrella organization’s controversial head, has long urged Horwath to avoid an election that could hand victory to the Tories.
Watching all of this will be Tom Mulcair. The federal NDP leader needs Ontario voters if his party is to win power in next year’s national election.
A solid NDP showing in the June 12 provincial contest could give Mulcair a much needed boost. (An outright NDP win, given the possibility of screw-ups by a novice government, would be a mixed blessing.)
But a definitive Hudak victory — in an election forced by Horwath — would spell bad news for Mulcair. History shows that when Ontarians turn on provincial New Democrats, their federal cousins also suffer.