Kathleen Wynne admits to being surprised and a little frustrated that making minority government work is not as easy as she had hoped.
"I guess I would have wanted, with both my counterparts, to have been able to have a bit more of a back and forth, a bit more give and take," Ontario's rookie Premier said in an interview in her office this week. "I thought that more of that would be possible than has been."
Instead, with one opposition party refusing to play ball and the other making the most of holding all the cards, Ms. Wynne finds herself lacking control heading into the first budget on her watch – and, if she's not lucky, the last one. She doesn't know whether Thursday's fiscal plan will ever pass through the legislature. And she cannot say what it will look like if it does.
"That's a good question," Ms. Wynne said when asked where she would draw the line on changing her Liberals' budget to win opposition support. "And there isn't a simple answer, because I don't know what the conversation will be after the budget."
Ms. Wynne is still billing the budget as a collaborative document aimed at appealing to the parties on her Liberals' right and left. But as much as anything, loath though she is to admit it, the budget will be about survival as she tries to buy more time to put her stamp on the province.
Since Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives have made clear their only interest in the budget is in voting against it, Ms. Wynne has been doing a lot to indulge Andrea Horwath's New Democrats – already indicating that the budget will meet an array of NDP demands ranging from social investments to auto insurance reform, plus some corporate tax tightening.
With the NDP likely to make new requests after the budget is introduced, Ms. Wynne is left to ask herself how many more concessions she can afford before she cedes so much power that she's doing herself and her province a disservice.
In the interview, she seemed a shade conflicted. Ontarians, she argued, do not want an election, and she would like to keep governing. "But the purpose of writing a budget is not so that we'll have support. The purpose of writing a budget is so that we can put the supports in place for people in the province and get the fiscal health of the province under control."
That latter commitment, from her perspective, includes things like keeping overall spending growth under 1 per cent next year, making a credible case that the provincial deficit will be gone in four years and getting the ball rolling on new revenues to expand transportation infrastructure – any of which could be at risk in post-budget wrangling.
Ms. Wynne is flying blind when it comes to what that wrangling will look like. After three pre-budget meetings, Ms. Horwath turned down her request for a fourth, and communication between their parties seems to be minimal. So the Premier cannot forecast whether there will be a repeat of what happened last year, when the province nearly wound up in an election because New Democrats joined Tories to gut components of the budget when it reached the finance committee.
"I think we have to expect that as the budget bill goes through the legislative process, it will go to committee and, you know, we can't predict 100 per cent what will happen there," Ms. Wynne understated. "I think that's all I need to say about that."
Such uncertainty, and the potential for a post-budget trip down the rabbit hole, is precisely what embittered Liberals who were around former premier Dalton McGuinty cautioned Ms. Wynne about in light of last year's drama. Their advice was not to trust the NDP – to play hardball. Instead, she has adopted less of a take-it-or-leave-it style than Mr. McGuinty did. And while it may have helped her in the court of public opinion – her personal numbers are much better than those of her predecessor – it has not made the budget process any easier.
That might be a moot point if the NDP decides to join with the Tories and bring down the Liberals irrespective of what's in the fiscal plan – over the controversy around the costly cancellation of power plants, for instance. Such decisions will come down to political calculations so far out of Ms. Wynne's hands that the best she can do is try to make it difficult for a spring election to be justified on policy grounds.
It will, she insisted, still be "a Liberal budget" that "reflects our value system." It will demonstrate her commitment both to fiscal restraint and to a "fair society." It will serve as "a starting point for a platform document," if need be.
More than anything, though, it will stand as a test of just how misguided that faith she had a few months ago really was.