The cold war between Ottawa and Ontario is so bad that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spent more time with Russian President Vladimir Putin this year than Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Friday is the first anniversary of the last time the two most powerful politicians in Canada sat down together face to face.
Harper will mark the occasion by meeting in Ottawa with the leader of another sub-national jurisdiction: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a likely candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
The prime minister, who was in Markham on Thursday, shrugged off Wynne’s demands for a confab and sounded like there was no urgency to organizing one soon.
“Well, I meet regularly with premiers across the country and we anticipate we will have another meeting at some point in time,” said Harper, before chiding the premier.
“Let me just say this: I know — we all know — that the government of Ontario has some pretty significant challenges,” he said.
“I would encourage the government of Ontario to focus on those things, not on confrontation. What we’ve done at the federal level, we’re balancing our budget, we’re cutting taxes and we’re delivering more services.”
Wynne — who could console herself with a courtesy visit Thursday afternoon from Vasco Alves Cordeiro, the president of the Azores — last met Harper in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 2013.
It was a Toronto Star story about that contentious discussion over reforming the Canada Pension Plan that seems to have exacerbated tensions.
In a front-page interview May 8 — at the height of what then appeared to be a tight election campaign — Wynne revealed Harper had “kind of smirked” and said people needed to save for their own retirement instead of banking on a public pension.
Her apparent indiscretion about a private conversation in order to promote the Liberals’ campaign pledge of an Ontario pension plan enraged the Conservative prime minister’s office.
Harper’s aides accused her last spring of “misrepresenting the meeting” in order “to distract from her mismanagement of the Ontario economy.”
Her strategy did not hurt her electorally, as she won a majority government on June 12.
The prime minister has in effect punished her by publicly meeting with other provincial leaders — including four times with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard since he was elected in April.
That’s despite the fact Harper has been in the GTA numerous times in the past 12 months and keeps a Toronto office just 1.9 km from Wynne’s office at Queen’s Park.
Indeed, it’s a four-minute car ride — or about a 23-minute stroll — from the legislature to the office tower at the corner of King Street West and University Avenue that is the prime minister’s base in the city.
On Thursday, Wynne, who has said she will actively campaign for federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in next year’s election, said Harper needs to get over his personal feelings toward her.
“Those of us who get into politics have to be able, I believe, to focus on the issues that are important to our constituents and not get caught in . . . personal animosity,” the premier told reporters.
“I really don’t think it’s helpful.
“For me, Stephen Harper is the prime minister of Canada and I think that it is only rational that the prime minister of Canada would want to talk with the premier of Ontario.”
Besides, there are important matters for the two to discuss, said Wynne, who has been pleading for an audience since September.
“There’s an active conversation right now about General Motors in Oshawa. We worked well with the federal government in the auto sector. I’d like to have that conversation with the prime minister and how are we going to tackle our relationship with the auto sector going forward,” she said.
“Ontario is a huge net contributor to the federation — it’s very important to the country that Ontario do well.”
At the G20 summit three weeks ago in Brisbane, Australia, Harper even made time for the much-loathed Putin.
The Russian president greeted the prime minister in a closed-door session with other world leaders.
“Well, I guess I’ll shake your hand,” Harper lectured Putin. “But I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said at the time that “Mr. Putin did not respond positively” to the admonishment.
- With files from Allan Woods