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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Welcome to Ontario: Personal-attack free - for now Add to ...

With the federal Conservatives having recently laid into Michael Ignatieff's father - not to mention reminders of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney seemingly making fun of Mr. Ignatieff's wife's name - Ontario politics looks positively genteel by comparison.

Until last fall, it appeared as though Deb Hutton - the wife of Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, and once the chief of staff to former premier Mike Harris - would find herself in the sights of Premier Dalton McGuinty's attack dogs. But following a press release that accused Ms. Hutton of being one of several " Tories at the trough," Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Hudak met privately to set some ground rules. Meanwhile, Liberal campaign co-chair Greg Sorbara promised that his party's re-election campaign "will not engage in attacking or highlighting the family lives of other contestants."

Since then, the Liberals have stepped more carefully. Privately, some of them are still not above taking shots at Ms. Hutton. But in their public communications, they've avoided any mention of her name.

If they manage to maintain such restraint through this year's election campaign, which is far from a sure thing, the Liberals will get some praise for taking the high road. But as much as it's a delicate topic to broach, it bears asking: Would it really be such a horrible offence if the Liberals did go after her again?

To be sure, it could be very offensive indeed. The more juvenile of the lines the Liberals previously flirted with involved referring to Mr. Hudak as "Mr. Hutton" - a way of attempting to spread the perception that she's the stronger personality in their relationship. There are all kinds of sexist undertones there, with the implication that Mr. Hudak is somehow weak because he's married to a successful woman known for her toughness. And it directly targets their home life, which should be way off limits.

An argument can be made, though, that targeting their professional (or at least political) relationship is a different story. Ms. Hutton is hardly running Mr. Hudak's campaign, but she is actively involved in it, including attending campaign meetings.

In theory, then, a useful smell test for the Liberals might be whether they would see fit to make mention of Ms. Hutton's record if she were just a regular adviser to Mr. Hudak, rather than his wife. By that standard, the expense claims targeted in the press release last fall - or, if the Liberals wanted to go anywhere near so sensitive an issue, her role in the Ipperwash stand-off - could be considered fair game.

In practice, the Liberals probably won't go directly after her at all - not because it violates their principles, but because it's bad politics. It's not as though many Ontarians will base their voting decisions on what a leader's spouse was doing back in the 1990s. So unless it was done very artfully, the story would wind up being more about the fact that the Liberals were attacking Ms. Hutton than what they were attacking her for.

Not that that risk seems to have proven much of a deterrent in federal politics. But for now, at least, Ontario's provincial operatives seem to be erring on the side of civility.

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