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Harper's Ontario Opportunity
21/02/2005

The feud continuing to build between Ottawa and Queen's Park would seem to be a perfect opportunity for Stephen Harper... as John Ibbitson wrote last week when he was complaining about Harper wasting time on other things.

Here's the idea. If he wants to form a government (even a minority government) Harper needs a lot more seats. He's not going to get them in Québec in the next election. His only chance, really, is to break through in Ontario.

McGuinty has been complaining that the amount of money Ottawa takes from Ontario is what is making it so hard for this province to balance its budgets and spend on what it needs to spend on. The Hill Times credits this new push to the pressure the Ontario Liberals are facing from John Tory's PCs.

Harper talked about the "fiscal imbalance" issue in the last election, but as Paul Wells pointed out yesterday, there are two versions of "fiscal imbalance":

Ontario is mad at Ottawa because it pays $23 billion more in tax revenue into the federal pot than it receives in government services and debt servicing. And it thinks that's too much.

Quebec — it kind of amazes me to have to point this out — is mad at Ottawa because it receives $2.8 billion more in government and debt servicing than it sends in tax revenue. And it thinks that's not enough.

...Put in its simplest terms: an angry Ontario and an angry Quebec are antagonists, not buddies, because the better deal Quebec seeks could only be financed by a worse deal for Ontario. It's a wonder this wasn't obvious to everyone. But never worry: it soon will be.

Although it uses Québec's term, Harper's 2004 plan for fiscal imbalance was really more in line with the complaints of Dalton McGuinty... and Albertans. He wanted to shift tax room to the provinces, which really gives money back to the "have" provinces and reduces Ottawa's role in redistribution.

Where a policy like this one could really work to Harper's advantage is in noting that the federal Liberals don't have the same sort of freedom to act. They can't match Harper's offer to Ontario because the Liberals really need to be competitive in Québec. Harper is toast in Québec, so he might as well make a real run for Ontario.

It might have appeared unseemly in the past for Harper to put this deal bluntly to Ontarians, but now that the provincial government is asking for it, it would seem to fair game.

Unfortunately, I don't think dwelling on same-sex marriage (etc.) is going to do it for him. On the other hand, if he were to seize the opportunity, he might be able to make true again the rule that we are to have different parties in power in Ottawa and Queen's Park.


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