In the Wynne-Harper detente, it will take two to tango -

In the Wynne-Harper detente, it will take two to tango

Paul Wells on why the feud between the Prime Minister and the premier of the country’s largest province simmers on

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has met with the prime ministers of India, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He’s met with the presidents of France and China. He met football legend Pinball Clemons before an Argos game. He met Jim Prentice, who used to be minister of this and that in assorted Harper governments, a month after Prentice became Alberta’s new premier. But the Prime Minister hasn’t found time to meet Kathleen Wynne, the premier of what is still, inconveniently, Canada’s largest province.

She grows impatient. On Nov. 19, the premier’s office released an exchange of letters between Harper and Wynne. Reading their letters, it’s hard to feel much love in the air.

“Dear Prime Minister Harper,” she writes on Sept. 16. “I am following up on our earlier exchange of letters following the June 12 provincial election . . . I would like to meet with you at your earliest convenience.” She lists infrastructure, the auto sector, internal trade, federal transfers, Employment Insurance and pensions among the topics she wants to discuss.

On Nov. 17, two months later, the PM sends Wynne a reply. He does the thing where the letter begins “Dear Premier,” but he’s crossed “Premier” out and written “Kathleen” by hand, which seems like a promising personal touch. But it’s downhill from there: “I encourage you to work with the responsible federal ministers,” he writes, and adds that he’s sent copies of their exchange to eight members of his cabinet. No mention of a meeting between the two.

Well. Two can play at this game. Wynne’s next letter begins, “Dear Prime Minister,” but now Wynne does the cross-out thing and writes “Stephen” by hand. “You can be certain our officials will follow up” with the eight ministers on Harper’s CC list, she writes, but “I would still like to hear from you on my request for a meeting.” It’s been 11 months since the two met. During that time, she’s won a majority government in a provincial election. “I hope that we can meet soon, before the end of 2014.”

She needn’t hold her breath. Of course, the two can’t stand each other. They met once before, last December, to discuss pensions. Harper’s government spent two years looking at ways to expand the Canada Pension Plan. Jim Flaherty used to talk about a “modest” increase in premiums to pay for more generous benefits. Then he announced the federal government had no interest in changing the CPP. So, in that December 2013 meeting, she urged Harper to go back to the notion of expanding the pension plan.

It didn’t go well. “He kind of smirked, at one point,” she told the Toronto Star months later, during the provincial election campaign.

That description of Harper’s facial expression, five months after the fact, didn’t win her any new fans in Ottawa. “Ms. Wynne is misrepresenting the meeting,” Harper’s spokesman, Jason MacDonald, told the Star. The Harper government likes to cut taxes, Harper’s man said. The Wynne government was “proposing higher pension payroll taxes and more debt.”

She sure was, and she won big in the election that followed. Wynne’s advisers say part of the key to her success was the fight with Harper over pensions. They’d have exchanged emails with Jason MacDonald all day long if they could. A lot of Ontarians liked the idea of governments providing more stable retirement benefits down the road, even at higher short-term cost. Jim Flaherty used to be one of them.

Another was a nameless official in the federal Finance Department. According to documents released under access-to-information laws, this fellow explained to a colleague in the department that, “in the long run, expanding the CPP would bring economic benefits. Higher savings will lead to higher income in the future and higher consumption possibilities for seniors.” As my colleague John Geddes has reported, that bit of federal analysis was never included in responses the Finance Department sent to inquiring reporters. Only under the obligations of law was it released.

Understand that, despite her protestations of good faith, Wynne enjoys this feud with the Prime Minister. She’ll meet with him at the drop of a hat, but, as long as he refuses, her staff thinks it doesn’t hurt her with the electorate they need. In speeches, she’s not shy about sticking in the shiv and twisting. In an October speech in Ottawa, she said of her go-it-alone Ontario pension plan: “Someone motivated exclusively by small-government or market fundamentalist ideology might be tempted to say, ‘Forget it.’ ” That’s a direct reference to what Harper told her at their last meeting. “The federal government kept punting on its obligation,” she added, and, “We couldn’t wait any longer for leadership from Ottawa.”

Wynne herself stopped meeting with Rob Ford after the Toronto mayor began imploding. This is a comparison the Harper government would do well to avoid, both because Wynne continued meeting with Toronto municipal officials who weren’t named Ford, and because Harper used to spend a lot of time with Ford, a state of affairs which invites questions of judgment. Harper sees Wynne as the kind of person he went into politics to fight. She likes to remind him it’s true. The province and the nation will survive if they don’t meet. But Wynne is content with either co-operation or a fight, and Harper prefers the fight. Every time he has run for re-election, he has sought to present himself as a reasonable man defending Canada against ideologues. A reasonable prime minister would sit down with the premier of Ontario.


In the Wynne-Harper detente, it will take two to tango

  1. Are the people of Ontario daft?

    What is the difference to an individual of having increasing CPP contributions and benefits and just putting aside an extra $50 month into a TFSA?

    Oh it would be better in the TFSA as the income would not be taxed when taken out as benefit.

    Ms. Wynne represents the free spending broke Auntie who wants her family to keep on funding the parties and games she keeps on spending on to make her popular.

  2. perhaps if Wynne was to turn her attention to Ontario’s massive debt, she might get some traction….Harper is not stupid and foresees the inevitable whining, moaning and gnashing of teeth

  3. The idea has always been to weaken Ontario and put Alberta in it’s place as the number one province.

    The price of oil is one of the many things not cooperating.

    • Western Canada has a lot more going for it than just oil. I’m from SK. Oil is important but we moved away from depending on oil a long time ago. But because the MSM is located in central Canada and only ventures west in search of stories that continues their accepted narratives, you would never know.

      • Most of us get news from around the world Maureen….and about the only thing you’re producing is resentment.

  4. I can’t think of a single thing the Ontario Liberals are doing with effectiveness or efficiency. They are big spenders and incredibly inept, or corrupt, or both. Unfortunately, the Hudak campaign was a disaster; he made every Civil Servant and government worker fear for their job and their pension. A dumber campaign could not have been devised. Ontario didn’t vote Liberal because they thought they were going to get great government (and NDP doesn’t count – they live in a totally different world than most people).

  5. Hey,

    I think we all know why Wynne is attacking Harper. She is looking to deflect attention from the fact that in a single decade the Liberals have run Ontario into the ground with their foolish policies.

    They want to shift the blame. The Libs made a mess of the finances, and they want to blame the FEDS for not bailing them out of the mess they created.

  6. Note to rightwingers:

    Please clear your inboxes of HQ memos. You are way behind events.

    Ontario overwhelmingly re-elected a Liberal provincial govt with Premier Wynne at the helm.

    You can all stop campaigning now.

    • It’s interesting how you Ontario Liberal supporters are actually bragging about bankrupting your province. And you wonder why the rest of the country doesn’t listen to you?

      • LOL Con nonsense. It’s no wonder you don’t get elected.

    • I shake my head at you. Ontario did not overwhelmingly re-elect Wynne at all. She was elected with 38.7% of the vote – even less than the federal government in 2011. Wynne only won because Hudak was inept and ineffective, dropping his vote share 4.2%, almost guaranteeing Wynne her undeserved majority.
      As for the Harper – Wynne wedge, Wynne is the biggest hypocrite. She refused to meet Rob Ford when he requested to see her, and Ford did not even have a difficult issue to be dealing with. Harper refused because he knew Wynne was going to ask for more funding, billions of it. She was either going to ask for Harper to increase taxes nationally or increase transfer payments to Ontario. Here is the truth: Harper decreased FEDERAL taxes, taxes that do not affect Ontario’s revenue. Harper NEVER stagnated or even thought about reducing transfer payments to Ontario. In fact, transfer payments are highest in history and growing at a staggering rate. So when Wynne calls a meeting, all she wants is for Harper to fix a mess McGuinty and she put together.

      • She won a majority….and it was the 4th win in a row.

        That is overwhelming choice.

        It wasn’t Hudak, it’s Con policies in general as compared to Lib ones.

        She didn’t meet with Ford because council had removed him as mayor.

  7. Yes she did win big in the her election, but she now wants to meet to demand that Harper (and taxpayers in the rest of Canada) haul her sorry ass out of the pit she dug for herself. No thank you.

    She needs to look at her own government and the various Liberal programs that she supported for the last decade or so, and decide what is essential to growing Ontario and what are just wants that got her elected. The rest of Canada is only mildly interested in supporting her Liberal programs that are bankrupting residents of Ontario.

    • Focus Maureen. Ont is quite happy with her govt. Stop pretending otherwise for your partisan ranting.

  8. Harper or his replacement – no matter who – will have to deal with wynne sooner or later.

    S/he is spending like a drunken sailor and the province will eventually be broke.

    That means a federal bail out.

    Hope Ontario residents do not get that for some time after the interest rates for Ontario loas jump through the roof.

    Ontario libs may have the majority – but that is only because of the stupidity of the Ontario Cons

    Sooner or later even Ontario voters – as dumb as they are – will see that they are in trouble and demand a change

    Sure glad most of them stay in that province – we do not need them elsewhere.

    • Ontario is doing just fine, thanks. Your concern isn’t needed.

  9. There is zero up-side to a meeting with Wynne for Harper. She’ll demand billions of dollars and ask him to raise taxes so she doesn’t have to. And when he politely declines the “offer”, she’ll publicly accuse him of “smirking”, as if that somehow justifies her failed policies and leadership. Wynne is as toxic a leader as Manitoba’s Greg Selinger. The federal government is right to avoid doing business with crooks.

    • The federal govt IS a crook.