Ontario's Progressive Conservatives are shifting to a state of campaign readiness as Leader Tim Hudak declares he's prepared to bring down the minority Liberal government by the summer and fight an election on a platform of sweeping change.
Not only does he want to slash spending to rein in Ontario's deficit, he aims to redefine the scope of government and shrink it, contracting out health services to the private sector and ending state monopolies such as the LCBO. "It'll be a focus of what government should be in the 21st century," he says of his campaign pitch, "as opposed to trying to simply prop up with a few two-by-fours … the crumbling foundation of government of the last century."
The timing of the election will likely be up to the third-party New Democrats. They have pledged to support the Liberals in a confidence vote on the Throne Speech, but have made no guarantees about which way they will vote on the budget.
For a man with such vaulting ambitions, Mr. Hudak seems surprisingly relaxed in his Queen's Park office on a recent morning, as he perches on the edge of a wing-backed chair, one leg outstretched and a large Tim Hortons coffee in his hand.
He speaks warmly of Premier Kathleen Wynne, describing a cordiality that goes back to their preleadership days: on one occasion, after participating in a televised panel together when Ms. Wynne was still a backbencher, he even gave her a lift home in his Chevrolet Avalanche. And unlike his structured, formal meetings with ex-premier Dalton McGuinty, Mr. Hudak says his sit-downs with Ms. Wynne are laid back and friendly.
But the chances he will back her budget, expected in April, are next to nil.
"As much as we get along on a personal level, we're not even close to seeing eye to eye," he said.
In last week's Throne Speech, Ms. Wynne's government made a play for tripartisan support, combining a plan to balance the budget with a "fair society" package of social policy, including more money for the home-care system.
Mr. Hudak, however, draws a sharp contrast between the parties. He argues the Premier's social agenda could pave the way for larger government, opposes concessions to the NDP and says the Liberals' fiscal framework, which involves constraining spending growth rather than cutting it, is too incremental.
A Tory source also said Sunday that the party will promise to hold a judicial inquiry into the Liberals' expensive decision to cancel two power plants before the last election, ratcheting up the pressure on a difficult file.
If the ideological divide in Ontario politics is as stark as Mr. Hudak suggests, it has as much to do with the Tory Leader as with Ms. Wynne.
For nearly a decade after PC Mike Harris left the premier's office in 2002, his party sought to avoid the conflict wrought by his austerity agenda by tacking to the centre. But in recent months, Mr. Hudak has reaffirmed his commitment to a bolder brand of Toryism.
He wants to cut taxes, pull the government out of gambling operations and open the liquor market to private competition. He would put some medical procedures – dialysis treatments and MRIs – out to tender. Social-assistance benefits for long-term welfare recipients would be scaled back.
On the national front, he wants to join the New West Partnership, a deal that has seen British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan eliminate protectionist restrictions on investment.
"What has given me great pause is that Ontario was hit earlier, harder, and the impact has lasted longer [in] the recession. And that's not the way our great province has been defined. We were always the last province dragged kicking and screaming into the recession. We were the province that pulled the rest of Canada out of the ditch," he said.
His plan will require major change, and he has no illusion about what awaits. But as he did when discussing Ms. Wynne, Mr. Hudak strikes an understanding note about the opposition he will face should he get to implement it.
"There will be people who will be on TV, they'll be in The Globe and Mail, who will say that these changes impact on them. The reality is, they will be telling you the truth," he said. "But if we don't actually start making some of those decisions today, we're going to lose the basics down the road – like health for our loved ones and education for our kids."