Wynne's letters to Harper carry more than 1 message

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's 'Dear Stephen' letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper carry more than one message, writes Robert Fisher.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has written a series of letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, though they have not yet yielded the response she has been looking for. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

It's the start of a new 'parliamentary' week at Queen's Park and on Parliament Hill — and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is still waiting for a response to yet another of her "Dear Stephen" letters.

One of them, dated September 16th, took 62 days to draw a response from the prime minister. But, even then, Wynne's request for a face-to-face meeting was dismissed.

So, Wynne wrote again last week.

Is she expecting a positive response this time? Yes!

Will she get it? Likely not!

The central problem here is that this Harper-Wynne battle has become highly politicized — both sides accuse the other of playing politics over Wynne's request for a face-to-face meeting.

For federal Conservatives, this is all about Wynne's quid pro quo with her federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau — part of a pact that, "I'll help you, if you help me."

Trudeau was all over the last Ontario provincial election — posing for pictures and signing autographs while campaigning next to Wynne. And it helped.

The federal Liberals took a bit of gamble that their Ontario cousins, led by Wynne, could actually pull off a win. And, when she did, the other part of the deal kicked in.

In the recent Whitby-Oshawa federal byelection, Wynne was there knocking on doors for the Liberal candidate — a candidate who did not win but who made the results a lot closer than they have been for years.

So when the next federal election is called, expect Wynne to be at Trudeau's side again, helping him as he helped her.

And that is why the federal Conservatives are so reluctant to agree to Wynne's increasing demands for a meeting.

What do the Liberals really want?

But at Queen's Park, do the provincial Liberals really want that meeting with Harper?

The answer to that is yes and no. A rebuff by the prime minister plays into their political strategy. So it's better to picture Harper putting the premier's letters in his wastebasket than picking up the phone and saying, "Let's talk."

Harper's dismissal allows the provincial Liberals to argue Ontario — a province that elected 73 federal Conservatives in the 2011 election — is getting short shrift from Ottawa, which is hurting the province's bottom line.

This issue is also clearly a part of the Wynne Liberals' political misdirection — to draw attention away from the $12.5-billion deficit, and the cuts and tax hikes that may be required between now and the 2018 provincial election.

Look instead at the bogeyman in Ottawa in Stephen Harper and his finance minister, Toronto MP Joe Oliver.

Case in point: last week's fall economic update from Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa.

"It is critical that the federal government avoid further unilateral actions that hurt the people of Ontario and actions that put the province's fiscal plan at risk," said Sousa.

"In many respects, the federal government collects a bucket of water from Ontario and returns a thimble. We need some more of that water to flow back to us."

But the federal Tories argue that kind of blame is a bit rich coming, as it does, from a "tax and spend" Liberal government — a government with a huge deficit and no clear idea how to get back to balance by or before the next provincial election.

Sousa's verbal broadside at the Harper government was delivered a week ago today.

Then two days later, Wynne was still wondering why there is no meeting with the prime minister.

'This is not a partisan issue'

To ramp up to her case, her office provided setup questions for Liberal MPP Daiene Vernile.

Dutifully, Vernile asked the questions that Wynne knew were coming.

"Premier, I understand that you have written to the prime minister on a number of occasions, wanting to meet with him to talk about shared goals," read the rookie backbencher from Kitchener.

"This is not a partisan issue," insisted the premier as she thanked Vernile for her inquiry — as opposition MPPs snickered and jeered.

"As many of you know it has been 11 months since I have had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Harper face to face."

Wynne went on to acknowledge her letter-writing campaign, how her letters had been ignored and her decision to write again to discuss a range of issues from pension reform to northern Ontario's Ring of Fire project.

In Ottawa that same day, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair lauded Ontario for its support of his recently unveiled daycare plan, asking Harper if he'd be prepared to meet Wynne to talk about that.

But Harper ignored the call, saying his government "is doing what Ontarians need" — balancing the federal budget and cutting their taxes.

The comment in the House of Commons seems to have put the kibosh, for now and perhaps forever, on one-on-one talks with Wynne.

A risky approach?

But the prime minister knows more than anyone that what is seen by many as his dismissive tone toward Wynne and Ontario has the potential of backfiring in the next federal election.

And he and his party would be wrong to assume that this issue will simply and eventually fade from Wynne's political radar because it won’t.

Governments of all political stripes at Queen's Park have fought with prime ministers of all political stripes for what former premier Bob Rae used to call a "fair deal for Ontario."

Wynne is tough and persistent and believes she's right — a difficult combination for her opponents in Ottawa to deal with.

She and her cabinet and caucus believe they've got a winner of a political story to tell, to upset Harper in Ontario and help their federal party, while at the same time, helping themselves — with a message that the federal Tories have "abandoned" Ontario.

If you close your eyes you can almost hear the words now from Kathleen Wynne — standing in the Legislature during the morning question period – facing the Conservatives complaining about the deficit or some other issue and saying something like, "Pick up the phone and call your federal cousins."

But they won't. So Wynne will write another "Dear Stephen" letter until she gets the answer she's looking for from the prime minister.


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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