OTTAWA Tornto Star Oct 4 2011
It was clear from the now infamous Stephen Harper summer cry for a “hat trick” that partisanship would reign in Ottawa as Ontarians headed to the polls.
But the aggressive dive into the provincial pool on behalf of Tim Hudak by his Conservative cousins in the capital could very well be unprecedented.
Harper issued the call for a Hudak victory at a barbecue at the family home of Rob Ford, as the Prime Minister and the Toronto mayor swapped fish stories and dreamt of a trifecta of the right in Ontario.
Forget, for a second, the evidence that the Harper government’s cheerleading for Hudak could be hurting the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader.
There is an important principle of federal-provincial relations that is being ignored here.
As Harper’s spokesman agreed after the barbecue video surfaced, “It behooves the Prime Minister to work well with all his counterparts.”
As his chief of staff directed MPs in a pre-election memo to the Conservative caucus, those helping in provincial elections would have to ensure the government doesn’t become the story.
They must do nothing to “impair our ability to maintain appropriate federal-provincial relations’’ Nigel Wright wrote.
So impressed were they with that memo, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Treasury Board President popped up on the podium at Hudak’s first Ottawa campaign appearance in the ByWard Market.
Clement introduced him.
Since then, Kenney has travelled throughout the province to rally Tory candidates, and Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro, Harper’s parliamentary secretary, had to apologize for commissioning a poll showing the PC candidate in the riding doing much better than he had in a legitimate poll released by the local newspaper.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson have all jumped into the fray, Nicholson pointing to cuts to emergency rooms in Hudak’s home riding in touting him for premier.
But all of them had to take a back seat to the campaign rhetoric of Harper’s right-hand man, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
Flaherty, a former Ontario finance minister and cabinet colleague of Hudak, accused McGuinty of turning a surplus into a $16 billion deficit, saying Canada was on the right track financially but the largest province wasn’t.
“(Hudak) is the most fiscally responsible person seeking the office of premier of Ontario,” Flaherty told CTV’s News Channel Monday.
It’s not that federal MPs have never ridden in to help their provincial cousins, but more subtly, with a low-key nudge here and a fundraising speech there.
Harper’s Conservatives have tossed subtlety into the trash can.
“Usually there is an expectation that provincial politics is different than federal politics,’’ says Ned Franks, professor emeritus in political studies at Queen’s University.
“But we have a federal government like no other.”
It is dangerous for the party in its partisan garb and dangerous for a government in its official garb.
On the partisan front, of course, there is the danger of backing a loser and damaging the brand should Hudak falter on Thursday.
From its perch as government, it is throwing into open question how it can deal with a Liberal government or a Liberal-NDP government in Ontario after warning of the danger of a McGuinty re-election.
The Conservatives have, however, played into McGuinty’s hands when he argues that Ottawa’s support for Hudak means an indebted PC premier would be a lap dog to McGuinty’s pit bull in fighting for Ontario at the federal-provincial table.
Harper and his Ontario partisans are also swimming against history.
We will know Thursday whether they have been effective enough to give Ontarians comfort in their hat trick or whether they have reminded voters in this province why they historically give their trust to one party on Parliament Hill, but a different one at Queen’s Park.