Ontario votes 2014: Kathleen Wynne takes aim at Ottawa, a classic move

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne has found herself sparring with the federal government while on the campaign trail, just hours after she called an election. It’s part of a national sport in this country, Robert Fisher writes, in which politicians take aim at Ottawa.
Ontario premier brandishes a club in the classic vote grabbing move then backs off the harsh rhetoric 5:04

It’s a national sport in this country — bashing the federal government of the day.

But in Ontario, it’s been raised to a political art form, especially in election campaigns.

"Stephen Harper: if you don’t want to help, get out of the way."

Kathleen Wynne used that line before a group of partisans just hours after she called the June 12th provincial election.

The line has since been toned down to "move out of the way."

But the message is the same. That Ottawa won’t help on pension reform and a long list of other federal-provincial issues and so Wynne will go it alone.

It is great and convenient political rhetoric that has been practised for decades in Ontario.

Liberal premier Mitchell Hepburn fought with Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.

But more recently, premier Bill Davis had an awkward and strained relationship with prime minister Joe Clark even though both were and are Progressive Conservatives.

And, since then David Peterson, Bob Rae, Mike Harris, Ernie Eves and Dalton McGuinty have had their issues with the federal government.

As Ontario's NDP premier — well before he joined the federal Liberals — Rae centred his attack on the huge federal Ontario Liberal caucus, mocking them as "the Red Army Chorus" willing to sing from the Chretien-Martin songbook even though when it came to their home province, the words and the music didn’t match.

Often, as was the case with Rae and since, the Queen’s Park battle cry has been demanding "Ontario's fair share" — a complaint that Ottawa takes so much money out of the province and puts so little back in.

McGuinty's constant complaints were, at one point in his time as premier, greeted by the Harper Tories with the words that he had become "the small man of Confederation."

But, he persisted in his criticism though — like those before him — he failed to move the Conservatives.

And, that brings the debate to the present.

Ottawa, Ontario at odds

The case against funding cuts and other issues now separate and have separated the two governments from almost the day that Kathleen Wynne became the Liberal leader.

Hers – like her predecessor's — has been a strained relationship with Stephen Harper — made all the more difficult with Wynne's left-leaning agenda. But it is also true that the "blue light" McGuinty and his agenda also failed to gain traction with the Harper government.

But unlike McGuinty, Wynne seems more ready and willing to take on Harper — to go after him and his government directly and at every opportunity.

Transit and health care funding cuts to Ontario have served — and some say deliberately so — to tighten the province’s financial noose.

But the Queen's Park complaints from Wynne and her finance minister have been met with federal indifference, even when the case was being clearly and loudly made that Alberta — the prime minister's home province — was not being treated in a similar fashion.

After Ottawa's February budget, Wynne ramped up her attack, releasing, no less, than a 34-page list of "the 116 ways" the Harper government "had short-changed Ontario."

Then, last week's provincial budget — now a Liberal campaign document — was chock full of references to Ottawa and how it has and is disadvantaging Ontario.

"Actions by the federal government have put all of our shared progress at risk," charged Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa. "More than 110 unilateral actions have hurt people and businesses across Ontario."

Sousa also called on Ottawa to "partner" with Ontario in the Ring of Fire development in Northern Ontario — noting the province had committed $1 billion to the project and asked Ottawa to do the same.

Not the way to go, Harper says

In London, the prime minister ignored that and took direct aim at Wynne’s so-called "made in Ontario" pension plan.

"Increasing taxes isn't the way to go," said Harper.

Then, on CBC Radio’s The House, federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver added his two cents to the debate over the Wynne budget, describing it as "the route to economic decline and not the route to economic growth or, job creation."

For her part, Wynne went on the offensive responding to both Harper and Oliver, saying their involvement in the election is "unusual," also taking a swipe at NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and PC Leader Tim Hudak.

"If they're silent on the issue (Ottawa’s treatment of Ontario) and if Stephen Harper is taking over the Conservative voice in the election, then that's who I need to respond to."

But fighting the election on three fronts will be taxing, even though Wynne may get some traction on her attack on the federal government.

Wynne's challenge then will be to wrap the three — Horwath, Hudak and, Harper — into one package of, if you will, neglect for the province's plight. But not to — as she herself puts it — get "bogged down" in a campaign fight with the federal government. But that should not be seen as her backing away from a fight. That would not be Wynne's style, especially when it comes to her desire to create an Ontario Retirement Pension Plan — aware that Ontarians often consider themselves Canadians first and Ontarians second.

But Wynne is counting on this part of her campaign message to resonate with voters who might just be asking why Alberta is getting a better "dollar deal" out of Ottawa and why the prime minister — who tiptoed around the recent Quebec provincial election — waited less than 24 hours to jump into Ontario’s.

About the Author

Robert Fisher

Provincial Affairs Specialist

A commentator with decades of experience covering Queen's Park, Robert Fisher writes about politics for He is an award-winning broadcast journalist with more than 30 years of experience in public and private radio and television.


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