Federal firepower mustered in Ontario election battle

The Canadian Press
May 22, 2014 01:00 AM

TORONTO - Ontario's political leaders appear to be summoning their federal reserves to help fight the June 12 election campaign.

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin joined Wynne on Thursday to help plug her proposed provincial pension plan — a cornerstone of her campaign and a big bone of contention between her and the Harper Conservatives.

Martin, who was recruited by Wynne to help with the made-in-Ontario plan, joined her in castigating the federal Tories for not expanding the Canada Pension Plan.

The Ontario Tories have called Wynne's pension idea a payroll tax, which shows a "complete ignorance of what pension plan investing is all about," he said.

"This is not a tax, and anybody who says it is a tax is either trying to fool people or they just don't understand what it's all about," said Martin, who as finance minister led reforms to the CPP in the 1990s.

"This is an investment in everybody's future."

Trudeau hopped aboard the federal Liberal train, joining Wynne and his candidate Adam Vaughan at a rally in Trinity-Spadina, a coveted Toronto riding both the federal and provincial Liberals are hoping to steal from the New Democrats.

The Harper Tories showed a "terrible lack of leadership by not addressing people's fears about retirement," Trudeau said, while Wynne had the strength to go it alone.

"But I'm here to tell her that she won't have to go it alone for long, because she will have a partner in Ottawa come the next election," he told the crowd of supporters.

"I believe in co-operative and collaborative federalism, a federalism that listens to each other, that respects areas of jurisdiction but understands that whatever level of government, we all serve the same citizens, and it's about time we worked together for them."

It's not uncommon for federal parties to help their provincial cousins in election campaigns. It puts more boots on the ground, but also provides an opportunity for the federal parties to lay the groundwork for the 2015 general election, particularly in key battlegrounds like Toronto.

Trudeau lends Wynne's campaign a bit of star power, while Martin's brand of Blue Liberalism and his reputation as the man who slayed the federal deficit gives her pension proposal a boost, said Peter Graefe, a political science professor at Hamilton's McMaster University.

"It's not the social Liberalism, it's Liberalism that watches the dollars and cents closely," he said.

It's useful for Wynne to align herself with Martin when people may doubt her government's ability to manage the construction of a complex pension system after the Liberals cancelled two gas plants at a cost of up to $1.1 billion, he said.

Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak invoked one of Martin's ghosts, saying he would call a judicial inquiry into the gas plants fiasco just like Martin did with the federal sponsorship scandal — which aired the Liberals' dirty laundry and may have ultimately helped sink the party in the 2006 election.

"It was an extraordinary betrayal of the trust that taxpayers have that their tax dollars will be respected," he said during a campaign stop in Ottawa.

Hudak has also received some high-profile support on the campaign trail, including Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Pollievre and Treasury Board president Tony Clement.

The most visible is Baird, who introduced Hudak at a town hall event in Toronto earlier this week and attended his speech in Ottawa last week. His aide Rick Roth is also part of Hudak's tour team.

Both Baird and Clement fought with Hudak in the Common Sense Revolution trenches, implementing controversial cuts in Ontario under former Tory premier Mike Harris that sparked widespread labour unrest and violent protests in the mid-1990s.

Clement has been the most vocal loyalist, calling Wynne's pension plan a "huge tax grab" and going so far as to say he wanted Wynne to lose and hoped Hudak would replace her.

He slammed Wynne again this week in an interview with the Sun for badgering Ottawa over funding for a transportation route to the Ring of Fire development in northern Ontario, saying it's a sign of desperation in her campaign.

It's unusual for a federal minister to wade into a provincial election because they still have to work with whoever is elected, Graefe said.

Clement's reaction seems to be more personal and visceral, he said, perhaps stemming from the partisan warfare during his days at Queen's Park.

But his ire wasn't entirely unprovoked. Wynne hasn't been shy about her feelings towards the federal Tories either, complaining even before the snap election was called that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's antipathy towards pension reform was "offensive and inexplicable," then repeating it during the campaign.

It's pretty typical for provincial premiers to run against Ottawa in elections, said Graefe. It allows them to wrap themselves in the provincial flag during an election when citizens are divided, rallying them around the governing party.

It also removes Hudak from the stage and puts Wynne front and centre, he said. But it doesn't appear to have worked as the direction of the election has tilted from what the Liberals are offering to a referendum on Hudak's controversial job cuts to balance the books in two years.

But Harper may want to tread carefully, Graefe said. Having Wynne go out and run for a few weeks about how terrible the federal Tories are on pensions and how they're not standing up for Ontarians is going to have an impact in the 2015 election when they're trying to hold on to seats in the Greater Toronto Area.


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