How Harper’s war of words with Wynne goes against tradition

By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 14, 2015
Stephen Harper and Kathleen Wynne in happier times.

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Some days, it's hard to know who's fighting whom in this 42nd Canadian general election campaign.

Ostensibly, it's supposed to be Stephen Harper vs. Tom Mulcair vs. Justin Trudeau vs. Elizabeth May. Then again, in the last Ontario election campaign in June 2014, we saw Liberal Kathleen Wynne spend a lot of time campaigning against a Conservative leader named Stephen Harper, not the Conservative leader named Tim Hudak.

Harper seems pleased to get even these days. We're hearing fewer and fewer criticisms from the prime minister against Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau. Instead, Harper has his sights set against Premier Wynne in the latest episode of “Who's Fighting Whom in This Campaign, Anyway?”

Last year, it was Wynne who was fighting against Harper, arguing for maintaining public services and creating a new pension plan for Ontarians who, in the premier's view, had inadequate income security for their senior years.

Now, Harper is returning the favour, fighting against the Liberal premier, who finds herself surrounded by critics on all sides who don't like her new Ontario Retirement Pension Plan

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Not that long ago, Harper and Wynne appeared to sheathe their swords. They had a face-to-face meeting in which they were actually photographed laughing together. But the past several weeks, it's been a very different relationship. Harper has said not only is the proposed ORPP a terrible idea, but he's also gone even further, saying his federal government would refuse to help in any way make the plan a reality. Ontario would prefer to have federal assistance, so as not to have to duplicate all the costly fiscal architecture necessary to get the plan implemented. The prospects of that happening if Harper is re-elected appear low right now.

Of course, the electorate has learned to take much of what is said during a writ period with a massive grain of salt.

Ontario premiers running against the federal government is a tried, tested, and true campaign tactic, whose origins go way back. And I don't just mean Bill Davis campaigning against Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s and 1980s, which he did with relish, despite his deep concerns about the then Conservative leader Joe Clark.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Premier Mitch Hepburn used to rail against Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and the two of them were in the same party.

But Harper's tactic is a bit different: it's strange to see the federal leader campaigning against a provincial premier. In fact, Harper's doubled down on it, taking on NDP Premier Rachel Notley in his home province of Alberta as well. Harper may feel his attacks are working on two fronts. First, the assumption has to be that an attack on Wynne has some collateral damaging effects on Justin Trudeau. But second, earlier this week, Wynne announced she was partially retreating on the ORPP, giving small businesses more time to embrace it and giving more exemptions to businesses which already have comparable plans in place. Can Harper claim victory for that? His has certainly been one of the sharper voices in recent days – and not the only one – harshly criticizing the ORPP.

No province has more Conservative MPs than Ontario, not to mention all those newly created ridings the Tories hope to pick up. Harper has evidently decided that it's going to be helpful to his election prospects not only to run against Mulcair and Trudeau and May in Canada's biggest province, but the Liberal premier as well. 

Image credit: pm.gc.ca

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