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Stephen Harper's gift to Kathleen Wynne

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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his fiscal enforcer, Jim Flaherty, may have handed Premier Kathleen Wynne the keys to a magic kingdom. But this is not some Disney fantasyland. Rather, it is the world of majority government in Ontario.

The two keys the federal Conservatives have given the minority Liberal premier are, first, a popular election issue and, second, a convincing enemy to stand against.

That enemy is the government in Ottawa. Premier Wynne doesn’t owe the feds any favours. She is free to run with the issue they have given her, and she can ignore Tiny Tim Hudak, the Ontario Tory leader. She can run against the big guys, the villains from Ottawa.

The issue is pension reform. Or, as the Wynne Liberals will position it (if they are smart), the right of greying Ontario baby boomers, and soon-to-be boomers, to retire with dignity and with adequate support from the Canada Pension Plan – to which they have contributed uncomplainingly throughout their working lives.

Partisan rhetoric aside, it’s a legitimate issue. More than half of Ontarians have no private or company pension plan. They rely on the CPP, which pays a maximum of just over $12,000 a year, plus the means-related Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement, which can raise the total to a measly $16,000.

Although everyone agrees that $16,000 is not enough, Premier Wynne and other premiers are frustrated by Flaherty’s refusal to consider enriching the CPP. The federal minister blocked consensus at the finance ministers’ meeting at Meech Lake, and Wynne says Ontario is prepared to go it alone, or with other unhappy provinces.

Flaherty argues that although a return to surpluses is just around the corner in Ottawa, the economy is still too fragile to consider increasing CPP payroll taxes to support more generous benefits. “Now is the time for fiscal discipline,” he said. Jobs must be created and budgets balanced before the needs of retirees can addressed. Yes, “fiscal discipline” – just what retirees are longing to hear!

I can see the Liberal and NDP ads now. “Santa” Flaherty handing out “fiscal discipline” vouchers on street corners to pensioners, along with a kindly lecture about how they should have saved more during their working years, and how, now that they are old, they should thank Stephen Harper for the vouchers to take to the food bank to swap for something to eat.

The Harper Conservatives usually manage to make trouble for themselves (to wit, the Senate scandal coverup). This time they are undermining their allies in Ontario, the most important chunk of political real estate in the country.

What’s more, they are exposing their base – the 25 or 30 per cent who can be relied on to vote Tory – to assault from their opponents. The demographics of the Harper nation tends to middle income, grey hair and retirement planning – just the sort of folks who would suffer under Flaherty’s “fiscal discipline” regime. If these people face a polling-booth choice between better pensions and loyalty to the party, the Tories might not be happy with the result.

The pension issue also serves to reinforce the image of Conservatives - especially the federal variety - as being indifferent to the needs of ordinary Canadian families. It’s an image that was further reinforced recently when Industry Minister James Moore, supposedly a humane Tory, mused aloud, “Is it the government's job, my job, to feed my neighbour's child? I don't think so” – a gaffe (or a lapse into candor) for which he later apologized.

Then there’s Harper’s man at Canada Post, Deepak Chopra, who revealed a secret rationale behind the shift from home delivery to community mailboxes –that is, to give seniors more exercise. I can see the scene now – hordes of happy seniors chanting the praises of Chairman Harper as they race their walkers and wheelchairs  through ice and snow to retrieve their mail. The Conservatives will surely have cameras there to capture the festive scene for next election’s commercials.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. His column appears every Monday in the Kitchener Record and Guelph Mercury. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca 

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