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Possibility of Ontario election looms as politicians return from Christmas break

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne reacts as Lt.-Gov. David Onley delivers the throne speech at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Tuesday February 19, 2013. The Ontario legislature resumes Tuesday with the prospect of a spring election looming and the minority Liberal government reeling after another two byelection losses last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne reacts as Lt.-Gov. David Onley delivers the throne speech at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Tuesday February 19, 2013. The Ontario legislature resumes Tuesday with the prospect of a spring election looming and the minority Liberal government reeling after another two byelection losses last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - The Ontario legislature resumes Tuesday with the prospect of a spring election looming and the minority Liberal government reeling after another two byelection losses last week.

The main focus of the session will be the budget, expected in late March or early April, which will lead to the government's defeat and automatically trigger an election if the Liberals can't secure a third deal with the New Democrats to support it.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath talked tough after the party took Niagara Falls from the Liberals in a byelection last Thursday, saying voters sent a clear message that it was "time for a change."

Horwath was still complaining Friday about the Liberals not keeping promises in the last two budgets, accusing them of "spinning the numbers" instead of cutting car insurance rates and saying they still had not created a financial accountability office.

But when pressed about the possibility of defeating the Liberals on the budget, Horwath said she doesn't have "election fever" and will consult voters on whether they feel the Liberals have kept their word and can be trusted to do so again.

"The other two leaders might talk about elections all the time and whether or not they want an election or they don't, what I'm going to talk about is the priorities of Ontarians, making sure they are front and centre," she said.

"For me, the job is to get a sense of where Ontarians are, to listen to what they have to say, and spend this session making very clear what those priorities and goals are."

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, breathing a big sigh of relief after the Tories held on to the suburban Toronto riding of Thornhill in Thursday's other byelection, said voters had sent a "powerful message" that it's time for a change.

Hudak, who has been pushing for an election almost since the day the Progressive Conservatives lost the 2011 campaign, said his party captured the most votes in the seven byelections held since Wynne became Liberal leader a year ago, even though they won only two. The NDP won three and the Liberals won two.

"People want change, and as we've seen in the byelections last Thursday and last summer, people want a change from the Liberals, who dropped to 20 per cent in Niagara Falls," he said.

"It's the PC Party that got the most votes by far in those seven campaigns."

Premier Kathleen Wynne downplayed the importance of the Liberal losses _ calling the byelections "skirmishes" that allowed people to "vote with impunity" knowing it wouldn't change anything in the legislature _ but said she knows voters want change.

"There is an appetite among many people for change, and I understand that," Wynne said Friday. "We've been in office for 10 years, but I've been the premier for a year, and I am the change that we are bringing to the province of Ontario, and that's the conversation I'll be having with the people in a general election."

However, Wynne made it clear she doesn't intend to call an election, and will introduce a budget as planned.

"We're going to continue to do our work," she said. "I don't know when there will be an election. It is my job to make sure that we continue to implement our plan."

There are 20 government bills left over from the fall session of the legislature, many that the Liberals accuse the Opposition of blocking for partisan reasons, including one to give workers up to eight weeks unpaid leave to care for a sick family member.

There is also legislation that would increase penalties for selling cigarettes to kids and broaden smoking bans in public places, and another bill to strengthen rules around unlicensed day cares that the Liberals are trying to get passed.

The Tories are pushing Hudak's private member's bill that he says would create one million jobs over the next eight years, starting with a drop in the corporate tax rate, but it stands virtually no chance of getting passed into law.

The return of MPPs from the two-month Christmas break also means a return of the committee hearings into the Liberals' decisions to cancel two gas plants prior to the 2011 election at a cost of up to $1.1 billion.

There is also an ongoing police investigation into deleted emails on the gas plant cancellations, and another police probe into irregular activities at the troubled Ornge air ambulance service.

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