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Peter Fonseca, then Ontario's tourism minister, is shown at Queen's Park in Toronto on May 15, 2008. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Peter Fonseca, then Ontario's tourism minister, is shown at Queen's Park in Toronto on May 15, 2008. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Ignatieff heats up Liberal family feud Add to ...

For Michael Ignatieff, it threatens to be short-term gain for long-term pain.

Not only did the federal Liberal Leader manage to offend a slew of prospective candidates by appointing a quasi-star candidate to run in Mississauga East-Cooksville, the riding long represented for his party by Albina Guarnieri, but he also managed to antagonize his most important allies in the country's largest province.

It's hard to see how Mr. Ignatieff could expect to make major gains in Ontario next election without significant assistance from the provincial Liberals, who have a much stronger campaign organization in the province than he does. But after this week, it's equally difficult to imagine why Premier Dalton McGuinty would feel overly inclined to lend a hand.

It's not as though Peter Fonseca, the erstwhile labour minister lured away by the bright lights of Ottawa, is irreplaceable. He's not been considered one of the more influential members of the provincial cabinet, and even around Queen's Park he's cut a fairly low-profile figure. But for Mr. McGuinty, the optics of his departure are terrible - something the federal Liberals seemed either ignorant of, or indifferent to.

With eight of Mr. McGuinty's 72 MPPs having now signalled they won't run in next fall's provincial election, there's a persistent storyline that the government is a sinking ship. In some cases, that's a little unfair; fatigued MPPs may just have had enough. But it's harder to explain away a 44-year-old cabinet minister deciding he'd rather cast his lot with a federal opposition party that's not exactly surging toward government. (Provincial Liberals are spinning that Mr. Fonseca was lured by the prospect of a higher salary and especially a pension, which is actually quite plausible.)

Making matter worse, in terms of the Liberals' family feud, is the way the news came out.

If you've ever tried to leave a job on reasonably good terms, you know it's imperative to tell your boss - and, if you have any, your staff - before anyone else does. Most new employers understand and respect that, but Mr. Ignatieff's party apparently didn't.

While some provincial Liberals had heard rumours that Mr. Fonseca was considering making a move, it hadn't been confirmed (or received any public attention) until definitive word came out of the federal Liberals' Christmas party on Wednesday night. The timing meant that Thursday's release of a long-awaited report on workplace safety - a rare occasion on which Mr. Fonseca was to be in the spotlight - was largely overshadowed; by the end of the day, the flashier news was that Mr. McGuinty had replaced him as minister.

The leak seems to have been born more of sloppiness than of malice: Party officials had told other would-be candidates in Mississauga East-Cooksville they were out of luck, which got the gossip mill going. But there was also a certain arrogance to it.

Federal Liberals have long viewed provincial politics as the minor leagues, and treated their counterparts at Queen's Park accordingly. But that was easier to get away with when they were in power in Ottawa. However rough a time Mr. McGuinty's Liberals have been having of late, they at least know how to win - as evidenced by the fact that they have nearly double the number of Ontario seats as their federal cousins do.

Nearly five years removed from government, and mired in dysfunction for most of that time, Mr. Ignatieff's Liberals need all the help they can get. Mr. Fonseca has much less to offer on that front than the people he's leaving behind.

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