TORONTO - With a provincial election expected this spring, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne called two byelections Wednesday that will test the mood of voters in Niagara Falls and the Toronto area riding of Thornhill.
As Wynne announced voters in the two ridings will go to the polls Feb. 13, the Opposition complained the government had poured over $100 million into the Niagara region in the past month to keep the seat in Liberal hands.
"Oh, I think people see through this old school, cynical politics where all of a sudden there's all kinds of money for things that weren't even on the Liberal's radar screen," said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. "But I'm going to talk about jobs, about my million jobs plan to put people into good, well-paying jobs."
The Liberals announced a $75-million package for the Niagara-based wine industry in December, and on Monday confirmed a new hospital would be built in Niagara Falls, promising an initial $26 million for the planning stage.
The New Democrats said they weren't surprised to see the Liberals spending government money in advance of the byelection call.
"The throwing around of a little bit of money is not unexpected," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "It's the way Liberals do things."
Wynne said the new Niagara hospital and the assistance for the wine industry, were "in the works for a long time" and had nothing to do with the byelections. The wine sector has huge potential for growth, and providing government money is part of the Liberal's economic strategy, she added.
"It's an example of how we are investing in a business climate, and investing in people, so we can see the economy grow," said Wynne. "I will just go political for a moment, that is in stark contrast to what you see coming from the other leaders."
The Tories oppose grants to private business as corporate welfare, while the NDP say any government money for companies should come with "iron-clad" job guarantees.
Both opposition leaders raised the estimated $1.1-billion cost of the Liberals' decisions to cancel gas plants in Oakville and Mississauga prior to the 2011 election, which they call "an expensive Liberal seat saver program."
"People feel like they've been ignored by a Liberal government mired in gas plants scandals that doesn't understand their challenges," said Horwath.
The byelections, which come less than a week before the legislature resumes sitting, will fill seats vacated by the retirements of Liberal Kim Craitor and Progressive Conservative Peter Shurman.
The Liberals were the only party that was consistently behind construction of the new hospital in Niagara Falls, which will mean closing several other smaller hospitals in the region, said Wynne.
"The Conservatives were not supportive and now they are," she said. "The NDP have said they'll build a hospital and keep all the others open, so that's not really a plan when you just keep adding."
Horwath said it was "pretty funny" for Wynne to suggest other parties couldn't be trusted to spend taxpayers' money wisely.
The outcomes of the byelections will not affect the minority status of the Liberal government, no matter which party wins, but they will help determine who has momentum as the province gears up for an election, which is expected after the minority government introduces its spring budget.
City councillor Joyce Morocco will carry the Liberal banner in Niagara Falls, while the governing party nominated councillor Sandra Yeung Racco in Thornhill. Racco will get a high-profile boost to kick off her campaign Thursday with a visit from federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
The Tories have nominated regional councillor and former Niagara Falls MPP Bart Maves as their candidate in the border city and will pick their candidate for Thornhill Thursday night. The NDP will nominate their candidates in both ridings this weekend.
Teresa Pun, a doctor who had been a Green Party candidate in the 2011 Manitoba provincial election, is the Green candidate in Thornhill. The Green candidate in Niagara Falls will be nominated Sunday.