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opinion

Robert Schertzer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto. His forthcoming book, The Judicial Role in a Diverse Federation, will be published in 2016.

It is not surprising that federal-provincial politics has been front and centre early in the election campaign. National unity and working with the provinces on the economy, the environment and reforming the Senate were all themes of the first leaders' debate.

Many election promises made by the leaders will require the help of their provincial counterparts to accomplish. Take the NDP's childcare plan: implementing $15-a-day childcare across the country is only possible with the co-operation of the provinces. The Liberal proposal to create a national carbon-pricing scheme will only work with provincial support. And so, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are making nice with the premiers.

The Conservatives, though, are taking a different approach. Stephen Harper spent much of the first week of the campaign attacking the performance of Premiers Kathleen Wynne and Rachel Notley. The Conservative leader, a notoriously strategic actor, doesn't pick a public fight without calculation.

The shots at Ms. Wynne are likely designed to capitalize on her unpopularity. A recent poll places her approval rating at 31 per cent. By criticizing Ms. Wynne's performance and flagship pension plan, Mr. Harper is trying to shore up support in Ontario, where the Conservatives must do well if they are to stay in power. Even if Ms. Wynne manages to rally Liberal support in response to these attacks – by campaigning for Mr. Trudeau and running ads (literally) – the result may be to split the vote between the Liberals and NDP in key ridings, which ultimately helps Conservative candidates.

Attacking Ms. Notley is about speaking to several audiences. By labelling her NDP government a disaster, Mr. Harper is warning Albertans that strayed from the provincial Tories, and Quebecers that voted "orange" in the last federal race, that NDP governments have dire consequences. Remember that Mr. Harper's latest comments about Ms. Notley were originally made at a stop in Quebec. It also doesn't hurt to undermine NDP leadership to the wider national audience. Finally, Mr. Harper and his team may believe that they can excite the conservative base through these proxy spats.

This is the logic behind attacking Ms. Wynne and Ms. Notley at the outset of the campaign. It may work, but the potential flaw in the plan is that it may mobilize Liberal and NDP supporters. Ms. Wynne's pension plan is popular in Toronto where Mr. Harper needs seats. Ms. Notley is still enjoying a post-election honeymoon. Such previous fights with premiers have not worked out so well for Mr. Harper (Danny Williams' ABC campaign shut the Conservatives out of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2008).

Most importantly, though, this is a shortsighted strategy. It could contribute to a long, acrimonious campaign and further cripple federal politics if Mr. Harper returns to 24 Sussex: eight of the 10 provinces are led by Liberals or New Democrats. Most of these premiers are only at the start of their mandates, so they will be around for years to come.

The Conservatives came to power in 2006 preaching the virtues of "open federalism," yet paradoxically the Prime Minister and premiers hardly ever meet.

Since 2006, Mr. Harper has held two first ministers' meetings. He has never relied on his relationships with the premiers to advance his agenda in areas where provincial co-operation was the norm: healthcare funding and changes to immigration programs are cases in point. Granted, much of the real work happens at the ministerial and bureaucratic levels, behind closed doors. But given the latest turn from ambivalence to overt hostility, even that working-level co-operation may be stunted.

Of course, first Mr. Harper has to win in order to govern at all. And by his calculations, it must be worth burning some bridges to secure his fourth term.