Kathleen Wynne kicked off her first provincial election by kicking Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the shins. Hard.
At daily campaign photo-ops, the Liberal premier laced up her running shoes. And kicked Harper again — on pension reform, of all things.
What makes her run? What makes her kick? Is she gaining any traction with her fancy footwork on the campaign trail?
Ottawa-bashing is a contact sport in other provinces but rarely connects with Ontario voters, who see themselves as primarily proto-Canadian. Are they likely to be roused by a retirement income debate?
• First, it probably can’t hurt. The prime minister’s declining popularity makes him a helpful foil. Just as Dalton McGuinty is the monkey on Wynne’s back, Harper is deadweight for Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak, his fellow Tory. If Wynne deploys her jujitsu judiciously, she may yet benefit from a few more free kicks.
• Second, the prickly PM is taking the bait — he just can’t help himself — which is proving helpful to Wynne, playing into her hands so she can kick him again. Wynne’s top campaign strategists can’t believe their good luck, given that many of them worked for previous federal Liberal governments that routinely ignored complaints from Queen’s Park.
• Third, Harper happens to be a legitimate target. Never mind the usual Ottawa-bashing claims about the province being short-changed by $11 billion a year in transfer payments (a true story, but one pan-Canadian Ontarians can’t get excited about). What’s different this time is that Harper remains diametrically, ideologically and ontologically opposed to pension reform — the centrepiece of Wynne’s stillborn budget and embryonic campaign platform.
• Fourth, even if she is picking a fight with the PM on a pension pretext, the subtext is that Wynne is burnishing her leadership credentials — casting herself as the only provincial politician capable of standing up to Harper’s petulance (Ontario voters traditionally choose alternating parties in power on Parliament Hill and at Queen’s Park).
• Fifth, instead of defending herself against past McGuinty scandals, she can focus on Harper’s refusal to help plan our retirement futures. It’s a convenient channel changer — a mix of triangulation (playing Hudak off Harper), projection (casting herself as a strong leader) and deflection (pensions over gas plants).
In the campaign’s first week, Wynne told my colleague Robert Benzie of a December meeting where the prime minister mused that Canadians should look after their own retirement savings, not rely on government enhancements to the Canada Pension Plan.
Now we know why Harper’s government launched a deceptive campaign that month, undercutting the premiers by claiming any new CPP premiums would cost up to 70,000 lost jobs. In fact, an internal government study reached the opposite conclusion, projecting long-term economic benefits if the premiums were phased in gradually.
Blinded by ideology, blinkered by partisanship, Harper refuses to recognize that most people have a hard time socking away money (hence the billions in unused RRSP contribution room); those who do have middling success in the markets (recall the 2008 meltdown) or pay too much in management fees (eating into their returns).
Even if they’re not actuarial experts, most Canadians understand, intuitively, that a pension is a good thing — and want one. Yet by Harper’s libertarian logic, we should roll up the CPP and, while we’re at it, medicare, because they burden employers with extra costs.
That’s how Harper plays politics. And that’s why our prime minister finds himself caught up in an Ontario election.
Wynne’s attacks may be a mix of projection, deflection and triangulation. But her pension plan is sound public policy.
Fortunately for her, Harper is helping her make that point — because he just can’t help himself. Or us.