Ontario, Ottawa in a risky game of political positioning

Tim
Tim Harper
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It is always a risky game trying to divine principle from partisanship when two governments appear ready to settle matters with pistols at 50 paces.

With the hint of a spring election in the air at Queen's Park, the cynic would say the current ongoing battles between Ottawa and Ontario are about political positioning for the inevitable when the ice melts.

But even by the standards of regular partisan political games, the tone between the various combatants indicates that this is not all role-playing and there is evidence of genuine bad blood.

A recap of the line brawl that has broken out just since the calendar flipped to 2014:

Junior finance minister Kevin Sorenson vs. Premier Kathleen Wynne on pensions:

After Wynne announced that former prime minister Paul Martin would advise her on a made-in-Ontario pension plan, Sorensen offered this response: "Premier Wynne will disadvantage Ontario's businesses with higher payroll taxes, killing jobs and deterring investment. Employees simply can't afford a smaller paycheque in this fragile global economy."

Wynne said if Ottawa won't exercise its responsibility to improve pensions, it is the responsibility of the province to move into the void on its own.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander vs. provincial Health Minister Deb Matthews on health care for refugee claimants: Alexander says Ontario's decision to fund health care for refugee claimants would make the province a magnet for bogus claimants trying to game a system he is trying to tighten up.

Queen's Park's behaviour was "scandalous ... irresponsible," Alexander said.

Matthews said his argument is "absurd" and she will not have Ontario doctors asking heart attack victims their immigration history before treating them.

Alexander is playing the “politics of division, which I abhor,” she said.

Matthews says she will send a bill for $20 million to Ottawa, but Alexander doesn't sound like he's getting out his chequebook.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney vs. Ontario Training Minister Brad Duguid on skills training: Kenney has compromised on his Canada Job Grant program, which has faced provincial resistance, led by Ontario. Although Kenney says the provinces will not have to match Ottawa's share of skills training expenses, he maintains the program is "so blindingly sensible, I don't understand why it's not widely accepted."

Duguid says Ottawa is slashing transfer payments to the provinces for training under-represented groups from $500 million to $300 million, a 60 per cent cut.

“That's just not good economics,” Duguid said.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty vs. provincial Finance Minister Charles Sousa on transfer payments: Flaherty says the only solution the Wynne government knows "is to complain" and if she and Sousa think they are being shortchanged for political reasons, they don't understand how the equalization program works.

Sousa says Flaherty is trying to balance his books on the backs of Ontarians while finding more money for transfer payments for Alberta and Quebec.

Kenney vs. Sousa and Wynne on job losses: When Kenney was asked by CTV Power Play host Don Martin about federal jobless numbers in December, the federal minister took a quick breath and took aim at Queen's Park: "Unfortunately, Ontario seems to be the real problem.  Of the 46,000 jobs lost in December, 39,000 were lost in Ontario. I would encourage the Ontario government to look at their policies that are resulting in a huge increase in electricity prices ... By driving up those costs they are forcing some businesses to look at moving south.''

Kenney also blamed the departure of food processing plants in southwestern Ontario on onerous provincial regulations.

This war of words may benefit both sides.

There is no doubt federal Conservatives are trying to give Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak a boost, even if some government members privately remain unconvinced about the quality of his leadership.

The possibility of a hard-right conservative government in the country's largest province is, at least in the short term, an enticing prospect, even if traditional voting patterns suggest Ontario voters would lurch back to the centre in a 2015 federal vote if they are being governed by Progressive Conservatives.

There are certainly Conservatives here who would enjoy watching right-to-work legislation taking root at Queen's Park.

But it is also worth remembering that Wynne walks a well-trod path.

It is never a bad idea to campaign against big bad Ottawa if you are looking to a provincial election, particularly if the federal government is the ideological soulmate of your main provincial competitor and you can convince voters you are the victim.

 

 

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column is distributed by Torstar Syndication Services. tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

 

 

Organizations: Queen's, Progressive Conservatives, CTV Power Play Torstar Syndication

Geographic location: Ontario, Ottawa, Alberta Quebec

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