I've been in a lot of campaigns, and I know desperation when I hear it.
- Greg Sorbara, Ontario Liberals
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is using the country's finances to justify a heated partisan attack against the Ontario Liberal government, hoping to boost the fortunes of his Tory cousins by blasting the McGuinty government's fiscal record.
Focusing on the province's debt and deficits, Mr. Flaherty told a Empire and Canadian Club audience that Ontario “can't afford four more years of the same Dalton McGuinty government.”
Mr. Flaherty, who spoke after provincial Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak at the Toronto lunch, raised the spectre of sovereign debt crises in Europe as he warned about the perils of ignoring the province's $14-billion deficit.
“I spend time at G20 meetings and there are problems in Europe and weakness in the U.S.,” he said. “Our country needs Ontario to get back on the right track.”
The federal minister's actions run the risk of poisoning relations between Ottawa and Ontario should Mr. Flaherty's preferred party fail to come out on top when Ontarians head to the polls Oct. 6.
His comments also appeared at odds with an edict issued last month by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office, urging federal Conservatives against “becoming the story” in provincial elections. The memo urged MPs to avoid statements that could make it difficult for the federal party to negotiate with the eventual winner.
Mr. Flaherty – a former Mike Harris cabinet minister – also put in a word for his wife, Christine Elliott, who is running for the PCs in the suburban GTA riding of Whitby-Oshawa. “I received some guidance at home this morning about what I may say,” he said.
Part of Mr. McGuinty's campaign message is that he is better placed to represent Ontario in upcoming negotiations with Ottawa over the renewal of federal-provincial transfers for health and social spending.
The Ontario Liberals were quick to respond, pointing to a report showing the federal deficit had tripled in July compared to a year earlier. Campaign co-chair Greg Sorbara said bringing Mr. Flaherty to speak before a joint meeting of the Canadian Club and Empire Club was a sign of desperation in the final days of the campaign.
“Today's speech was full of anger and vitriol,” he said. “I've been in a lot of campaigns, and I know desperation when I hear it.”
Mr. Sorbara said the provincial deficit is largely the result of increased government spending through the recession, as governments around the world borrowed heavily to stimulate economic growth.
“This is part of the dishonesty of Tim Hudak,” he said. “He knows very well the Ontario and federal [deficits]were part of a nationwide agreement to make sure Canada could weather the economic storm.”
The platforms of the Ontario Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and NDP all promise to erase the province's deficit by 2017-2018.
This isn't the first time questions have been raised over the role of federal Conservatives in the Ontario race. Mr. Harper's parliamentary secretary – Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro – apologized after commissioning a local poll in response to a local newspaper's poll that showed the Liberal candidate with a commanding lead.
And questions also surfaced after it was revealed that Mr. Harper's chief of staff, Nigel Wright – who penned the order to MPs about not becoming the story in provincial campaigns – played host at a $250-a-ticket wine and cheese fundraiser for Mike Yen, the PC candidate in Trinity-Spadina.
Mr. Flaherty's spokesman rejected the notion that the federal finance minister had become the story Friday.
“Stop the presses! Jim Flaherty supports Ontario PCs and Tim Hudak,” Chisholm Pothier wrote sarcastically in an e-mail. “The news today was Mr. Hudak's speech. Regardless, we'll work with whatever government there is in Ontario.”
Federal NDP finance critic Peggy Nash said Mr. Flaherty's comments could hurt Ottawa's relations with Ontario should the PCs lose the election.
“One would expect that the federal finance minister, who will have to deal with whatever kind of government is elected in Ontario, might [find it]a bit more difficult if he's very, very actively engaged in the election,” she said.
Mr. Flaherty is the second Harper minister to provide a personal endorsement on the campaign trail. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney called Mr. Hudak “a champion of equality of opportunity” at a Moon Festival dinner in Toronto two weeks ago.
For his part, Mr. Hudak was beaming after the endorsement as he took questions from reporters.
“I'm very pleased,” he said. “His words meant a lot to me.”
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