Harper Courts McGuinty for Ontario Votes

As the House rose last week and MPs scattered to their ridings, the barbecue season outlook for federal Conservatives varied markedly depending on their home province.

Harper Courts McGuinty for Ontario Votes

As the House rose last week and MPs scattered to their ridings, the barbecue season outlook for federal Conservatives varied markedly depending on their home province. Those from Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland faced the grim prospect of being grilled wherever they went over the political story of spring: the bitter war of words between the premiers of their provinces and the Prime Minister over equalization. Tory MPs from Ontario, on the other hand, were heading home with a surprisingly upbeat story to tell as they make the requisite rounds of the summer cookouts, fairs and festivals.

The howls of outrage from Regina, Halifax and St. John's attracted more attention, but the warming of previously frosty relations between Stephen HARPER's Parliament Hill and Dalton MCGUINTY's Queen's Park could end up being a more important political development. The raw numbers matter here: together the three aggrieved provinces count for 32 MPs, compared to Ontario's 106. In his uphill battle to somehow stretch his minority into a majority come the next election, Harper can't afford to sacrifice any region. But if provincial trade-offs must be made, the Albertan PM clearly can't risk even the appearance of being at odds with Ontario.

So the budget's approach to equalization made obvious political sense. Have-not provinces that happen to have oil and gas reserves are angry the new formula counts half of the revenues from those resources against the transfer payments they get from Ottawa. But Ontario's government, given that the province is a perennial contributor to the transfer system, was satisfied with the new deal. University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman credits federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who once had the same job in an Ontario Conservative government, with having grasped the need to win McGuinty's support on the issue - even though they are old political antagonists. "Flaherty knows the Ontario position, and is not unsympathetic," Nelson said. "And that trumped partisanship."

Not that the divide between the current regimes in Ottawa and Ontario has been securely bridged. In fact, potential for friction between them extends beyond the merely partisan to the personal. The Ontario premier's brother, Ottawa MP David McGuinty, is among the harder-hitting Tory-bashers in the federal Liberal caucus. Flaherty's wife, Christine Elliott, sits in the provincial Tory caucus at the Ontario legislature. And Flaherty himself is only one of the several key members of Harper's inner circle who were members of Mike Harris's old Ontario Conservative government, and carried to Ottawa hard feelings about the Ontario Grits who replaced them in power.

Yet, despite all that, Harper and McGuinty find themselves with key potential shared interests going forward. A senior Ontario Liberal official pointed, for instance, to federal Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice's push to create a new process to settle native land claims as "an increasingly important file for us." McGuinty hopes a new system might end the long standoff in Caledonia, Ont., over a Six Nations land claim, and provide some assurance that economic development elsewhere in the province won't be undermined by protracted land-claim disputes. "They've still got a lot to do on that file," the Ontario official said, "but they've come a long way."

A key test of Harper's sensitivity to Ontario will be the fate of his bill that would add 22 MPs to the 308-seat Commons by 2011. If passed, it would give Ontario 10 more seats, British Columbia seven, and Alberta five. But while B.C. and Alberta's new House strength would match their share of the national population, Ontario would still be under-represented by about 11 seats. McGuinty has denounced the plan as unfair, and one Tory adviser with close ties to Harper predicts the bill will not go forward.

Here's why: Ontario's centrality to federal Tory election strategy has grown. Losing seats in angry Atlantic provinces and Saskatchewan is now a real risk. Hope of winning more in Quebec, meanwhile, has waned since the province's spring election, in which Harper invested heavily, failed to produce a polling bounce for the federal Tories. "By a process of elimination," says pollster Bruce Anderson of Decima Research, "Ontario has become an extraordinarily important battleground for the Conservatives."

Ontario's upcoming provincial election, set for Oct. 10, will almost certainly come before the next federal vote. Harper has to be hoping that McGuinty sees enough upside in keeping their relations on track to resist the strong temptation, an old one for premiers, to run against Ottawa.

Maclean's July 9, 2007