McGuinty’s tactics all too familiar

IAN URQUHART
TORONTO STAR

The Ontario government is quietly considering a major advertising campaign aimed at convincing the public that the province is getting a raw deal from Ottawa.

The ads, both on TV and in print, would stress that federal transfers to the provinces and to individuals are not fairly distributed across the country.

Specifically, Ontario gets $1.1 billion less in federal transfers for health, education and welfare programs and $1.2 billion less in federal infrastructure funding than if the money were allocated strictly on a per capita basis; the average unemployed person in Ontario receives $3,640 less in benefits than his or her counterparts in the rest of the country; and there is $683 less per
unemployed person for job training than in the rest of the country.

Premier Dalton McGuinty wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper about these inequities in a letter last summer and said: "Outside of the country's formal equalization program, federal transfers and programs of general
application should treat all Canadians equally."

Harper politely acknowledged the letter, but he offered no hope for a resolution satisfactory to McGuinty.
Moreover, there are strong indications that Harper is trying to back out of a $6.9 billion deal signed in 2005 between McGuinty and then prime minister Paul Martin. Known as the Canada/Ontario Agreement, the deal was meant to go part way toward addressing McGuinty's concerns about inequitable treatment of this province.

During last winter's federal election campaign, Harper promised to honour the Canada/Ontario Agreement. But McGuinty said in a speech this past weekend that Harper is reneging on that commitment.

Responding to McGuinty on Monday, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said: "He's wrong, he's wrong, he's wrong." Flaherty went on to claim that "every nickel" of the deal has been accounted for in his fiscal plan.

But spokespersons for Flaherty have consistently refused to respond to requests for information to rebut figures being distributed by the provincial government that suggest there is a shortfall of $1.1 billion in federal funding of the deal.

Such stonewalling has provided ammunition for those inside the McGuinty government who want to escalate the war with Ottawa by launching an ad campaign.

There are echoes here of a similar federal-provincial war back in 2000, when Queen's Park was under the sway of Mike Harris and the Conservatives and Ottawa was run by Jean Chrétien and the Liberals.

The issue of the day was federal (under)funding of health care. When Chrétien wouldn't budge, Harris launched a $5 million ad campaign that graphically illustrated the declining federal share of funding for health care.

Not coincidentally, Chrétien subsequently agreed to a multi-billion-dollar increase in federal funding.

What makes this example problematic for McGuinty, however, is that he criticized the ad campaign at the time. In the Legislature, McGuinty called it an example of "wasteful, taxpayer-funded, partisan political advertising" and "political one-upmanship," and he told the Harrisites:
"Grow up. Stop the fighting. Stop the finger pointing."

McGuinty also promised to introduce a law banning such advertising. He followed through on that promise, although the law can be circumvented if the auditor general deems the ads to be non-partisan.

Given that the Legislature has unanimously endorsed two motions calling on the federal government to treat Ontario more equitably, there is a possibility the ads could pass muster with the auditor general.

But for now, sources say, an ad campaign remains a "tactic" that is under consideration, not a certainty.

Meanwhile, McGuinty continues to apply pressure on the federal government in his public appearances. Yesterday, on his way into the weekly Liberal caucus meeting, he refused to apologize for speaking his mind.

"Some people grow a little uncomfortable when Ontario asserts itself," he said. "But my object in life is not to make sure the federal government, whether it be Liberal or Conservative, is comfortable."

Later in the Legislature, NDP Leader Howard Hampton, sounding like McGuinty six years ago, accused the premier of playing "the same old blame game" and "pointing fingers at Ottawa."

To which McGuinty responded: "I've seen a lot of things in my 16 years in the Legislature, but for the first time I've seen the leader of the NDP become an apologist for a federal Conservative government."

We haven't heard the last on this issue — not by a long shot.