OTTAWA – Treasury Board president Tony Clement jumped into the Ontario election fray Thursday, calling for Premier Kathleen Wynne’s defeat and a government run by his former provincial cabinet colleague Tim Hudak.
Goaded by Wynne’s swipe at the federal Conservatives, Clement accused the Ontario Liberal leader of strategically attacking his government to deflect attention from the party’s “disastrous record.”
“Every day, Kathleen Wynne has gone out of her way to attack the federal government’s policies, now attacking Stephen Harper personally,” he said. “I have a right, as an Ontario citizen and taxpayer, to express my opinion.”
Wynne launched another salvo towards the prime minister at a campaign stop in Ottawa, saying Harper is ignoring the needs of Canada’s most populous province and casting Hudak — her Progressive Conservative rival — as a toady who won’t stand up for Ontario.
During a breakfast speech just a short distance from Parliament Hill, Wynne repeated her long-standing complaint that Ontario is being shortchanged, putting $11 billion more into federal coffers than it gets back. Harper’s tone-deaf attitude is jeopardizing Ontario’s fragile economic recovery, she said.
“Right now, we have a federal government that actually is doing more to hurt that recovery than to help,” Wynne said.
“This year Ontario is going to receive $641 million less in major transfers from the federal government, and this is at a time when we can least afford the hit.”
Harper has also been silent on her challenge to match her party’s promise of $1 billion to build a transportation route to the mineral-rich Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, she said. The Conservatives have done more for the oil and gas industry than they have to help develop the massive but remote chromite deposit, which would create jobs in the hard-hit region and benefit struggling First Nations communities.
Wynne’s jabs at Harper have become a common occurrence in the first week of the campaign, but date back to her rallying cry during a March 22 party convention where she called his antipathy towards pension reform “offensive and inexplicable.”
Her government proposed a mandatory made-in-Ontario pension plan after the federal Tories spurned their advances to enhance the Canada Pension Plan, saying it would be harmful to increase contributions from workers and employers until the economy gathers steam.
Harper panned the proposal last week, saying people prefer tax breaks as a reward for saving for retirement, rather than having their taxes hiked to force them to save.
Wynne argues people aren’t able to save for retirement and the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan wouldn’t harm the economy because it would be phased in gradually starting in 2017.
She said she’s not surprised the federal Tories are “attacking” because they don’t share her government’s values.
“We know (Harper) doesn’t like it because Tony Clement was sent out to attack today,” she told the crowd at an evening rally in Kingston, Ont.
“Not a surprise that Tony Clement and Tim Hudak would be on the same page, is it? Not a surprise at all.”
Clement called the pension plan a “huge tax grab.”
“I personally want the election of Tim Hudak as premier of Ontario,” he said. “I personally do. But we’ll work with anybody who forms a government, of course, in the national interest and in the provincial interest.”
Robert Drummond, political science professor emeritus at Toronto’s York University, said Clement’s intervention in the Ontario campaign is “unusual.”
“It has not been the norm in the recent past that federal ministers have intervened so publicly in speaking about the campaign provincially,” he said.
Clement might be trying to give the Tories’ electoral chances a boost or he might even be positioning himself to take over leadership of the provincial party should Hudak fail in this campaign, Drummond said.
Hudak once rubbed shoulders with federal heavyweights like Clement and John Baird — now minister of foreign affairs — at former premier Mike Harris’ cabinet table. Wynne has exploited those ties on the campaign trail, suggesting her rival is too much of a yes man to fight for Ontario.
“They’re playing on the same team,” she said in Ottawa. “They are taking the same positions on these issues of real importance to the people of Ontario.”
The Liberals want to change the channel from the spending scandals that have dominated the headlines in recent months, including the police investigation into the deletion of documents related to the cancellation of two unpopular gas plants, which could cost up to $1.1 billion, Hudak said.
“I understand why she’s doing this, she’s trying to deflect attention from her own record like the gas plants, the loss of jobs and the fact that Ontario now is near the back of the pack when it comes to job creation,” he said in Vaughan, north of Toronto.
“I want to see an Ontario that’s strong, that’s moving forward, that’s creating jobs, not on our knees begging for more money.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wynne’s ongoing feud with Harper is out of sync with what voters really care about.
“Whatever happened to the mediator premier that we used to see when she first became the leader of her party?” she said at a campaign stop in Niagara Falls.
“I think the people of Ontario would rather the debate be about that we need good jobs in this province.”