Premier Kathleen Wynne busted out a big bazooka Saturday, blasting Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "offensive and inexplicable" decision to block Canada Pension Plan expansion as she sought to pump up her base ahead of a possible spring election.
The unusually pointed attack on the federal government came in a rabble-rousing speech to the Ontario Liberals’ annual general meeting, where the Premier also trained her fire on the province's opposition parties.
“I’m impatient with Stephen Harper and his willful, ideological indifference to the retirement income crisis,” Ms. Wynne told the raucous crowd of roughly a thousand party activists at a Toronto convention centre. “So I say to Stephen Harper quite directly: if you won’t lead the way, then get out of the way. Move along.”
Ms. Wynne plans to unveil a new provincial retirement savings program this spring after Ottawa scuttled plans for an enriched CPP. The Harper government maintains bigger public pensions would damage the country’s already uncertain economy by taking money away from businesses to fund their employees’ future retirements. And the prime minister's point man on the file quickly hit back.
“Premier Wynne will disadvantage Canadian businesses with higher payroll taxes that will kill jobs and deter investment," Kevin Sorenson, federal Minister of State (Finance) said in a written statement. “Employees simply can’t afford a smaller paycheque in this fragile economy."
The Liberal meeting comes just weeks before Ms. Wynne will table a do-or-die budget. Controlling only a minority of seats in the legislature, she must secure the support of at least one other party to pass it, or face a trip to the polls. With the Grits’ decade-long control of the nation’s largest province on the line, insiders acknowledge a campaign would be a bare-knuckle brawl.
And in her address, the Premier pulled no punches.
She said Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak's anti-union, cost-cutting agenda would lead to lower wages and hobble the economy.
“We’ve seen this movie before: it was a slasher film from the 1990s, starring a guy named Mike Harris,” she said, sporting red sequined running shoes and surrounded by her caucus, to roars of approval. “And the last thing Ontario needs is a sequel.”
The Premier then criticized the New Democrats for refusing to take positions on a range of policy files. The left-wing party, for instance, has opposed various Liberal ideas for funding public transit without putting forward many of their own.
“These days, the NDP doesn’t even make sense to the NDP,” Ms. Wynne said. “They took months to make up their mind on the minimum wage…and they still couldn’t come up with a coherent position. And they’re against transit, which is beyond belief.”
With the speech, Ms. Wynne tried to strike a fine balance between these partisan attacks and the ambitious positivity around which she has built her political brand. At times, she smiled and laughed as she delivered her sharpest barbs.
And she devoted several passages to outlining the agenda she will take into a possible election: the new pension plan; $35-billion worth of spending on hospitals, subway lines and highways, and her government’s monetary support for businesses setting up shop in the province.
The Tories dismissed her attacks, saying the radical changes they are proposing are necessary to get the sluggish economy moving.
"We're the only party that's brought a comprehensive plan forward of any sort...there's nothing to be scared of in there," PC MPP Rod Jackson said.
New Democrat MPP Gilles Bisson, for his part, said his party is not afraid of losing votes to the Grits, who are courting left-leaning Ontarians with pledges of better transit and pensions. Mr. Bisson pointed out, for instance, that Ms. Wynne personally attacked Mr. Hudak many times but never once evoked the name of the NDP Leader.
“They’re recognizing that Andrea Horwath is a very popular leader that people like,” Mr. Bisson said.
Ms. Wynne, for her part, struck a confident tone, with a bullish pledge to deliver her party victory.
“The budget we will present must pass. And if it doesn’t, then we must – and I am determined that we will – win the election,” she said. “I am up to the challenge.”