From Davos to Iqaluit, Canada's strong banking record during the global economic storm is used by the Harper government at international summits to squeeze maximum political capital at home.
Now the Conservatives are using a senior banker's salary and statements in favour of tax hikes to portray Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff as a captive of Bay Street who is out of touch with working-class Canadians.
A Conservative missive sent this week to MPs and supporters highlights the fact that Tories believe they can use the growing tax debate to win back support from the Liberals. Mr. Ignatieff insists his party would not raise taxes, but his past comments have muddied the water.
Last week at a conference in Florida, TD Bank CEO Ed Clark said Prime Minister Stephen Harper isn't listening to the overwhelming view of Canadian CEOs that tax increases are the best way to reduce a record deficit.
He told the conference that almost every person at a recent meeting of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives said "raise my taxes" to erase it.
The Conservatives then fired off an internal e-mail titled "Millionaire Ignatieff Economic Czar Calls for Higher Taxes."
It suggested that because Mr. Clark was among senior economic thinkers who met with Mr. Ignatieff last May, the Opposition Leader must secretly share the banker's view.
"We can be pretty sure that in the coming months he will use the statements from his well-heeled economic advisers to justify his plans for massive new tax hikes on working- and middle-class Canadians," stated the e-mail, adding that Mr. Clark earned $11-million in 2009. "He can afford higher taxes. Can you?"
I was shocked to read that Prime Minister Harper has again attacked a private citizen for expressing views on public policy that are perceived to be at odds with his government's agenda. Michael Ignatieff, Liberal Leader
Mr. Ignatieff on Thursday demanded that the Prime Minister apologize to the senior banker. He said in a statement that the e-mail is the latest Conservative attack on non-partisan citizens who challenge the government's direction, citing former deputy finance minister Scott Clark, former Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen, Peter Tinsley, former Military Police Complaints Commission chair, and former RCMP complaints commissioner Paul Kennedy.
"I was shocked to read that Prime Minister Harper has again attacked a private citizen for expressing views on public policy that are perceived to be at odds with his government's agenda," Mr. Ignatieff said. "The Prime Minister's behaviour is beneath the office he holds."
The debate over whether tax increases are needed to balance the books is shaping up as a central question heading into the March 4 budget, which is expected to include a clear "road map" and timeline for erasing Canada's record deficit.
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According to a senior banker at another one of the five big banks, the Conservatives are creating an environment in which corporate leaders are scared to speak up about policy.
Liberals are attempting to show that the Conservatives have a systemic mean streak, but in aligning himself with Mr. Clark, Mr. Ignatieff is taking a political risk.
Albertans know Mr. Clark as "red Ed" for his leading role in crafting the National Energy Program when he was a senior public servant during the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau. That unpopular policy haunts the Liberals to this day in Alberta.
Officials with TD declined comment yesterday on the issue. Yet in a sense, Mr. Clark and his senior team knew what they were getting into.
Unlike banks that shy away from broad public policy debates, TD prides itself on its willingness to wade into issues with detailed studies and clear recommendations.
This approach comes directly from Mr. Clark and can be seen in the regular, free-wheeling commentary of chief economist, Don Drummond. Further adding to the tension, Frank McKenna - the former New Brunswick premier who has toyed with the idea of running for Liberal leader - is deputy chair of TD Financial Group and called the Conservatives "thugs" last year.
But criticizing government policy runs the risk of backlash. Environment Minister Jim Prentice reacted furiously last year to a report by environmentalists - funded by TD Bank - that called for major regulatory intervention to put a price on carbon emissions.
Mr. Prentice labelled the report "irresponsible" and questioned why TD would associate itself with recommendations that he said would harm the economy.