TORONTO - Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is attacking a tax-the-rich scheme that saved the minority Liberals from losing a crucial budget vote.

In a pro-business speech at a Toronto fundraising dinner, Hudak slammed the "punitive" surtax on those earning more than $500,000, saying it's yet another barrier to private-sector job creation and prosperity in Ontario.

The Liberals at first resisted the surtax, but finally adopted it a day before the crucial budget vote last week, in order to gain the support of the New Democrats. They promised to put all the revenue towards paying down the $15-billion deficit and allow the surtax to expire once the books are rebalanced.

Premier Dalton McGuinty's change of heart came amid public opinion polls that suggested the idea is very popular with voters.

But the Opposition leader insists the surtax punishes "innovators, entrepreneurs and people with investment capital" who can create much-needed jobs in Ontario.

"This is what I think: people who are rewarded by the marketplace should not then be penalized by the government with a punishing new tax," Hudak said.

"I would go the opposite direction. My government would be a pro-growth, pro-jobs government that fosters innovation, rewards hard work and nurtures more of our own."

Ontario urgently needs those jobs and economic growth to avoid spiralling further into debt due to Liberal incompetence, he said.

But Hudak said he's not worried about alienating voters by slamming what appears to be a very popular policy. The Liberals adopted the surtax to save their political skins, while his goal is to do what's right for the province, he said.

"We need a pro-jobs, pro-growth government," he said after the speech. "And part of that is tearing down barriers that are holding back job creation and investment."

Hudak also promised the party faithful to table a "new vision for Ontario's future and a blueprint for prosperity" before the next election.

"I see ... an Ontario of unbounded promise and confidence," he said in the campaign-style speech.

"Where success is a badge of honour, not a dirty word. Where hard work and innovation are rewarded, not regulated, taxed and punished by a government that looks to business planners — not central planners."

Hudak defended his vow to vote against the budget the day it was tabled, effectively killing any chance he may have had with the Liberals to change it.

He cited Moody's credit downgrade of the province and Standard & Poor's negative credit watch as the consequences of a "tax-and-spend" budget that not only failed to rein in government expenditures, but increased spending and taxes.

"So you want to know why we ... voted against the budget? There's your answer," Hudak said.

"Some people, they called it a game of chicken. But I call it a matter of principle — because those chickens are now coming home to roost. And a lot of you folks saw it coming."

Hudak was doing some debt-busting of his own at the fundraiser for the Tories, who were left $6 million in the hole after last fall's election campaign.

The event was expected to bring in $2 million for the party, which desperately needs a morale boost after the abrupt resignation of one of its veteran politicians, Elizabeth Witmer.

Witmer surprised Hudak when she suddenly quit last Friday after 22 years as a member of provincial parliament — and just seven months after the last election — to accept McGuinty's offer of the top job at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

Her departure means the Liberals have a shot at a majority government, after winning the Oct. 6 election just one seat short of the requisite 54 seats.

Currently, the Liberals hold 53 seats, including Speaker Dave Levac, while the opposition parties collectively hold 53.

While the Tories insist they have nothing but respect for Witmer, they say McGuinty was motivated solely by his desire for a majority in offering her the plum post.

Now the race is on for a possibly game-changing byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo that McGuinty says he's in no hurry to call.

Hudak said he was happy with the turnout at the fundraiser — which Tory organizers said attracted about 1,400 supporters — but doesn't think it has anything to do with the looming byelection.

"Often six months after an election campaign, we didn't expect this type of crowd," he said. "So it shows that we're on the right track and people want to see change in our province."