Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne tried to set the agenda for the Ontario election on its opening weekend by casting the campaign as a battle over her proposed pension plan and attempting to rope Prime Minister Stephen Harper into the fight.
“My value system is: We have a responsibility as government to allow people to have a secure retirement,” Ms. Wynne said Sunday on the lawn of the legislature. “There is a stark difference between people who believe this is a good idea and those who don’t.”
Ms. Wynne’s Ontario Retirement Pension Plan would be mandatory for most people without a workplace pension. Employees and businesses would both contribute, and it would roughly double current retirement benefits from the Canada Pension Plan.
Liberal insiders say the pension proposal has tested well in their market research. They are hoping to frame the election as a choice between Ms. Wynne’s interventionist economic plans, including the ORPP, and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak’s government-shrinking vision. The Grits badly want to avoid the vote becoming a referendum on their spending scandals.
Mr. Hudak, for his part, tried to define the campaign around his central message: that the province’s growing deficit is driving jobs away and that only his policies to cut spending and trim regulations can spur growth.
“Our plan is for a smaller government and a bigger economy,” he said on CFRB radio Sunday. “High taxes and big spending do not create jobs. We’ve chuckled before, that if high taxes created jobs, we’d all have two jobs by now.”
Meanwhile, the NDP is starting the campaign with a focus on straightforward pocketbook issues, including cheaper electricity rates.
Mr. Harper’s government is against the ORPP, contending that obliging companies to pay into it at a time of economic uncertainty would lead to job losses.
Ms. Wynne took square aim at the Prime Minister throughout the weekend, telling him to “get out of Ontario’s way” in a rally at a Toronto nightclub Friday, and pressing the attack in a radio interview Saturday and a scrum with reporters Sunday.
Mr. Harper appears to be determined to stay above the fray.
“The Prime Minister has been consistent in his approach to provincial elections; they are for the voters of the province to decide and we’ll work with the government they elect,” his spokesman, Jason MacDonald, wrote in an e-mail.
In a conference call with reporters, Conservative campaign manager Ian Robertson said Mr. Hudak will run a less rigid campaign than in years past, eschewing the traditional leader’s bus in order to hit more events. The party will also spend more money than any other party in the province’s history on online advertising, he said.
And Mr. Robertson pledged to fight a campaign of ideas.
“We’re not going to rely on card tricks and balloon animals and glossy photo ops to get us through like the other two leaders will,” he said. “They’re going to treat this like they’re running for high-school president.”
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath joined Ms. Wynne in bashing Mr. Harper on the pension issue, describing Ottawa’s decision last fall not to expand CPP as “a failure to have vision.” But she would not say whether she supports the Liberals’ pension proposal, or what sort of pension policy she favours.
“What we want to do is see people in this province be able to retire with dignity and security of income,” she said in an interview. “There’s lots of ways to get there but we certainly do want to see that it’s something we’ve acknowledged for many years.”
Ms. Horwath made one of her first campaign stops in Scarborough-Rouge River, a battleground riding in Toronto’s working-class inner suburbs, where her party is hoping for a breakthrough.
“This is a community that suffers from real concerns around jobs, real concerns around the affordability of everyday life, real concerns around transportation needs,” she said. “We’re in this campaign to win.”