The Progressive Conservative strategy of attacking Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty as someone who will raise taxes stumbled yesterday as Mr. McGuinty won a vote of confidence from a tax-fighting group and Tory Leader Ernie Eves incorrectly accused him of voting against a taxpayers' rights bill.
Mr. McGuinty signed a pledge to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation stating that if elected premier, he will not raise taxes or implement any new taxes without the explicit consent of Ontario voters. It also commits him to balancing his budgets and abiding by the province's Taxpayer Protection and Balanced Budget Act.
That law, brought in by the Conservatives with support of the Liberals, forbids tax increases in all but extreme emergencies unless they have been approved in a public vote. Mr. McGuinty said yesterday he did not consider a crisis even of the scale of the SARS outbreak earlier this year to be an emergency that would justify a tax hike.
Shortly after, Mr. Eves, who has privately signed the Canadian Taxpayers Federation pledge, attacked Mr. McGuinty, saying he voted against the Taxpayer Protection Act when it was passed by the legislature on Nov. 23, 1999.
"I find it very intriguing," Mr. Eves said on a stop in the Niagara Peninsula. "Dalton McGuinty, who voted against the Taxpayer Protection Act and has fought it tooth and nail every step of the way, today apparently now says he will sign a pledge that says he will live by the Taxpayer Protection Act, which he's against and has fought against vehemently for years."
Liberals staffers quickly handed out photocopies of the provincial Hansard that showed Mr. McGuinty, in fact, voted in favour of the legislation, and Mr. Eves was absent from the proceedings that day in 1999.
The Conservatives have gambled on a strategy of attacking Mr. McGuinty over taxes, and their campaign includes TV ads asking: "Ever wonder why Dalton McGuinty wants to raise your taxes?"
Mr. Eves tried to stick to the script later in the day, insisting Liberal plans to cancel a property-tax rebate for seniors, promised in this year's budget, constitute a tax increase.
But the Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation called Liberal plans to delays such tax cuts responsible.
John Williamson said the Liberal financial plan is better than that of the Tories.
"He's been very, very clear in his plan and where he wants to go and what he wants to do," Mr. Williamson said.
The Liberals have provided detailed financial proposals covering the next four years, he said. And, unlike the Tories, they have had their proposals approved by independent financial experts.
Their plan "does involve repealing some taxes and not moving ahead on some others," he said. "It's not my first choice. But . . . frankly I think the plan is a responsible plan."
The Conservatives and Mr. Eves, on the other hand, "only provided numbers for the first year and that's only on new spending promises. It doesn't include where they are going to be on health care and education four years down the road," Mr. Williamson said.
Mr. Eves insisted the Liberal plans constitute tax increases.
"Mr. McGuinty is telling people that he's not going to raise taxes in any way, shape or form," Mr. Eves said. "Well, how can that be true, when the law in the province of Ontario today, and was since July 1st, that every senior in this province will have rebated to them the provincial portion of the property taxes they pay on their principal residence?"
Mr. Eves continued: "He says he's going to repeal that . . . That's increasing taxes. I don't care how he wants to try to spin this."
Mr. McGuinty argues that the Conservatives have engaged in some spin of their own by claiming they are not running a deficit. He says the spring budget was balanced only because the government said it would sell $2-billion in undisclosed government assets - something that has yet to occur.
"We're telling Ontario voters that they can't trust Ernie Eves when it comes to practising fiscal discipline," Mr. McGuinty said. "He's hiding a $2-billion deficit. He's making irresponsible, reckless promises totalling $10.3-billion. And he doesn't have the courage to take his so-called financial plan and submit it to independent review. I'm asking [voters]to ask themselves who should they trust when it comes to their precious tax dollars."
Despite Mr. McGuinty's pledge yesterday - and although he has no plan to increase personal income tax - the Liberals would increase the corporate tax rate from 12.5 per cent to 14 per cent and would hike taxes on cigarettes.
The Taxpayer Protection Act stipulates that a general election can be considered a referendum on tax hikes that have been clearly articulated before the vote.
But former Tory finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who helped to write the legislation, said he did not agree that should be the case. Like Mr. Eves, Mr. Flaherty accused Mr. McGuinty of promising to raise taxes by repealing promised cuts, and he said he would be doing so without the expressed permission of the public.
But Mr. Flaherty was put on the defensive when it was pointed out that his own government delayed $1.5-billion in promised tax cuts last year without a referendum as required by the act.
That delay was created by a financial downturn related to the "extraordinary circumstances" of the terrorist attacks in the United States in September of 2001, he said, "but all of those tax reductions were implemented over time."