TAKING IT TO THE STREETS: WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE ...
With friends like Stephen Harper, Tim Hudak doesn't need enemies.
By Susanna Kelley
This week ONW is presenting the second of our "Campaign 2011 Briefing" on the hot races and hot issues for this fall's provincial election.
It's appropriate, though entirely coincidental, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper should involve himself in the upcoming Ontario election just as ONW is embarking on its pre-campaign tour of eastern Ontario and the nation's capital.
Somewhat surprisingly, and perhaps unhelpfully for Tim Hudak and his Ontario Progressive Conservatives, Mr. Harper's government has inserted itself in the election and its outcome in a number of ways. And they are ways that may influence average voters in a number of ridings important to Mr. Hudak in the upcoming campaign.
Many expected the Prime Minister to keep his powder dry when it came to things controversial at least until after the fall's spate of provincial elections, in order to help provincial Conservative parties.
But in Ottawa, where there are seven provincial seats, Mr. Harper's government is doing anything but laying low.
Instead, Treasury Minister and Ontario MP Tony Clement has announced more than 700 positions in the Environment Ministry will be cut. These include biologists, chemists, meteorologists, computer scientists and engineers.
The optics of having a former Mike Harris cabinet minister lay off scientists in the federal environment ministry in the wake of the Walkerton tragedy is, to say the least, less than ideal.
The announcement immediately invoked the spectre of that terrible time, where at least seven people died, including a little girl, after drinking water tainted with e-coli. It occurred after the Mike Harris Tories had devastated the provincial environment ministry. It had taken the brunt of Harris' cuts, with water inspectors being on the hit list. A subsequent public inquiry laid partial blame for the tragedy on that action by Mr. Harris.
Mr. Harris was such a polarizing figure that, even a decade after he left office, his name is still toxic in many Ontario circles.
Mr. Clement recently was forced to apologize for diverting $50 million dollars, approved in the House of Commons for border security, to pork-barrel projects in his own riding.
To have him tell civil servants in Ottawa they're out of a job after that kind of unnecessary misspending looks particularly callous.
And to do it just before the provincial campaign where seven of the region's seats are in Ottawa, a city filled with public servants, is courting a backlash.
Mr. Harper has also inserted himself into the campaign in another part of the province. In the city of Toronto, with its 22 seats, a video has surfaced publicly showing Mr. Harper in effect endorsing Mr. Hudak for Premier of Ontario. The event was a barbecue recently for federal Conservative volunteers in Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's mother's back yard.
Such an endorsement is completely consistent ideologically. But many Prime Ministers tend to keep a strictly neutral stance during provincial elections. Provincial premiers usually do the same when it comes to federal elections (Newfoundland's Danny Williams campaigning against Mr. Harper in 2008 was the exception rather than the rule.)
Leaders do this for a good and simple reason. They must work with whoever is elected, and nursing animosity and grudges is not the best way to start a productive relationship.
So it was surprising to hear Mr. Harper's endorsement for Mr. Hudak before the campaign writ was even dropped. He could hardly have expected it to be kept private with a large number of politicos in attendance. Even if there was no one videotaping his speech, he knows there's nothing a political junkie likes better than chatting about political gossip with another junkie.
The venue is important here, as well as the timing. By his attendance and his speech, Mr. Harper in effect lumped himself in with Mr. Ford and Mr. Hudak, describing his dream of a kind of Conservative triumvirate.
The Ontario PC's have been trying to make serious inroads into the city of Toronto since they were shut out in the Mike Harris years.
But Mr. Ford's credibility right now is undergoing some serious scrutiny. Having promised to balance the city of Toronto's budget without tax increases or spending cuts to anything except "gravy" items, he is now musing about shutting down libraries, cutting 2,000 day care spaces and overnight bus routes. Painful cuts all for the average person, and a betrayal of Mr. Ford's biggest campaign promise.
It's hard to see how the Prime Minister has done Mr. Hudak any favours in the Toronto ridings the PC's crave by lumping him in with an increasingly controversial Mr. Ford.
On the other hand, Mr. Harper's Conservatives won 73 seats on Ontario with 44.4 per cent of the popular vote in the May 2011 election; the NDP was second with 22 seats and 25.6 per cent of the popular vote; the Liberals third with 11 seats and 25.3 per cent of the popular vote. Still, over 50 per cent of those who voted opposed Mr. Harper. The Prime Minister's majority depended almost entirely on a few targeted ridings in the so-called "905" region - a distortion allowed under our first-past-the-post electoral system. However, this was after years of wooing those ridings, which Mr. Hudak has not had time to do. There is no assurance Mr. Hudak can pull off the same victory there.
The Harper win was also before Rob Ford signaled he may break his major campaign promise, which in fact was the ballot question in the municipal election.
Reports say Conservatives were quick to track down the barbecue video and get it yanked from YouTube. That action in itself speaks volumes.
Layoffs, library closures, daycare cuts, broken promises, Walkerton - not exactly what the PC'S want average voters associating with Tim Hudak.
When Mr. Harper invokes the names of the Ontario PC leader, Rob Ford and himself in an "all for one and one for all" pep rally, he may be doing Mr. Hudak less than a favour.