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question period

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 2, 2012.CHRIS WATTIE

When Bob Rae tried to defend Ontario against Conservative accusations that his province is responsible for its own fiscal woes, the response was another attack on his record as NDP premier.

Mr. Rae, the Interim Liberal Leader, rose during Question Period Monday to ask Finance Minister Jim Flaherty why he said last week that Ontario's spending habits pose a problem for the entire country.

"I wonder if the Minister of Finance could explain to us why, when he was in Toronto on Friday, he took the opportunity to single out the province of Ontario, accusing it of mismanaging its finances precisely at a time when it is the responsibility of the Minister of Finance to be speaking for all of Canada?"

The immediate retort from the Conservative benches was a loud round of applause for Mr. Flaherty's statements.

And it was Peter Van Loan, the Government House Leader who once called Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty "the small man of confederation," who provided an answer on behalf of the government.

"I can understand why the leader of the third party is avoiding that subject. This is not his kind of budget. This is a budget that does not increase taxes," Mr. Van Loan said.

"When he was premier of the province of Ontario he increased taxes 22 different ways," he said. "This is a budget that sets us on the track to a balanced budget, to eliminate the deficit in three years. When he was premier of the province of Ontario, he set record level deficits."

The Conservatives are currently running a series of televised attack ads targeting Mr. Rae for his record as Ontario premier during the early 1990s – a period of economic downturn and high deficits.

And they have had a long-running antipathy for Mr. McGuinty's Liberal government. Mr. Flaherty and two other federal Conservative cabinet ministers, John Baird and Tony Clement, were provincial ministers in the former Progressive Conservative government.

Ontario has yet to recover from the global economic recession that led to thousands of job losses in its manufacturing heartland and Mr. Flaherty's latest attack comes at a time when there is heightened concern the province's fiscal woes could lead to a downgrade of its credit rating.

"This is the same divisive spirit that we keep seeing," Mr. Rae persisted. "Why attack one province, not the others – not B.C., not Quebec, not New Brunswick, but only Ontario? Why attack the government of Ontario in such a way?"

But Mr. Van Loan simply volleyed the question back at the Interim Liberal Leader.

"I understand why the leader of the third party has a problem with our style of economic management because our record is in sharp contracts to his," he said. "We have new free trade agreement. When he was premier of Ontario he was fiercely opposed to the North American free trade agreement."

Meanwhile, the New Democrats have still not let the Liberals respond to last week's budget in the House of Commons and are going against tradition to use all of the response time themselves.

When asked about the strategy after Question Period, Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair said the NDP plans to use every opportunity the parliamentary rule book presented to demonstrate what is wrong with the budget.

"We have a Prime Minister who stood up in the House and promised he wouldn't touch pensions. He's adding two more years to get your OAS. He's taking $12,000 out of the pockets of every single senior who's going to be reaching retirement age. He swore that he wouldn't touch health transfers to the provinces. We're going to be short $31-billion from what was planned," Mr. Mulcair said.

"These are things that have to be pointed out," he added. "Their economic management has been abysmal and we're going to take all the time that we need and use all of the parliamentary tools at our disposal to make sure that we do our jobs as Canadians have elected us to do."