Canada election 2015: Why Stephen Harper is battling it out with Wynne and Notley

The political snipefest that has erupted between Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and the Alberta and Ontario premiers is is likely a calculated move by his party which is banking on the dustups to shore up their base.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has called out the premiers of Ontario and Alberta at the outset of the federal election campaign, a move that is likely aimed at Conservative supporters in those provinces. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

A political spat that erupted this week between Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and the Alberta and Ontario premiers is being seen by some as a calculated move on Harper's part to shore up his traditional party base.

"In the Canadian politics playbook, attacking premiers in the middle of a federal election campaign is unusual," said Cristine de Clercy, ​associate professor of political science at Western University.

"It's not clear to me what sorts of benefits Mr. Harper expects to secure in taking on two provincial premiers as well as the leaders of the other federal opposition. It's almost like a multi-front war now, and those tend to not end up very well."

But de Clercy, who is also co-director of the Leadership and Democracy Laboratory, said Harper rarely takes action in haste or without some calculation of the benefits of those actions.

"The prima facie explanation is that he's hoping to shore up loose Conservative fish in the two provinces in question," she said, adding that many who vote Liberal provincially will vote Conservative federally.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne waded into the federal election on Day 1 of the 11-week campaign to call for the defeat of Stephen Harper's Conservative government. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"This may well be an effort to push those people to more enthusiastically rally around the Conservative flag. Whether it works, we'll see."

Harper and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne have been battling it out for months over issues such as infrastructure and a pension plan for Ontarians that the Conservatives view as nothing more than a tax hike.

Wynne, for her part, has blasted Harper, calling for a new federal government and publicly endorsing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

'Open hostility'?

On Tuesday, Harper took a not-so-subtle swipe at Wynne's performance as premier, saying: "I think I will observe what a senior official told me when I took office. They said, 'You will have your best relations with the premiers who are doing a good job in their own jurisdiction.'"

"It's not unusual to see premiers supporting leaders of their party, it's a little more unusual to see open hostility with leaders who represent a different party," said Elly Alboim, associate professor in the school of journalism and communication at Carleton University. "I think this is a little louder and more pointed than we're used to."

Harper vs. Premiers?

8 years ago
Duration 9:50
Candidates Bernard Trottier, MaryAnn Mihychuk and Nikki Ashton debate the growing war of words between Stephen Harper and some premiers

But Harper has also taken aim at Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, referring to her new NDP government's decision to raise corporate and income taxes as a "disaster." (Notley responded that her government's priority is to protect the jobs of "regular working families," rather than "wealthy Conservative friends and insiders.")

It's not the first time Harper has become entangled in an a public spat with a provincial leader. Former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams, a Progressive Conservative, waged an "Anything But Conservative" campaign in 2008, accusing Harper of lying to him in a dispute over the federal-provincial equalization formula.

The result wasn't pretty for the federal Conservatives. The party won no federal seats in the province and their popular support dropped more than 25 points.

But the Conservatives may be gambling that in this case, by taking on premiers who both won majority governments, they will motivate traditional Conservatives to vote.

Converting support into votes

"​The Conservative success has not been in convincing people who do not traditionally vote for them," said Tim Abray, a teaching fellow who studies political communication and democratic theory at Queens University. "Their success has been mobilizing the people who do support them."

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper criticized the government of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley for raising taxes. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"Spend 10 minutes on Twitter. Pretty much any utterance about the NDP or Kathleen Wynne is greeted with a fairly long diatribe from people who are traditional Conservative supporters," Abray said. 

It's possible that strategy could backfire. For example, with Wynne now actively campaigning for Trudeau, that could rally up the Liberal base in vote-rich Ontario.

​"It is a double-edged sword, but it's a calculated choice that [the Conservatives] make, hoping it turns out well because of their ability to convert support into votes," Abray said.

As for Notley, so far she has remained quiet, in terms of offering any endorsement for NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. 

"I think, in fact, she's behaving in a more normal mode for provincial premiers and leaders, which is to lend support and help and make kind comments without [endorsing] a candidate as soon as the campaign starts," de Clercy said.

"I think if she doesn't [endorse], it's the smarter move. Notley's focus has to be her own challenges, and those include bringing on side many, many, many groups of people who are not necessarily familiar with or friendly to her government.

"So I don't see at this point there's any large gain for her to endorse Mr. Mulcair."