Veteran political journalist Paul Wells writes in MacLean’s about how for Stephen Harper, his birth province of Ontario plays a unique role. He looks to particular Ontarian traditions of small-c conservatism, as Wells explains at length, and is disappointed when these are not only unactivated but Ontario is actively undermining his national goals.
This preoccupation with the fate of Ontario goes back a long way. Much of it is simple conviction. After 11 Liberal years, the province is paying $11 billion a year in debt servicing. Nobody knows how Wynne plans to meet her 2018 target to eliminate the provincial budget deficit. Don Drummond, the former bank economist, was hired by McGuinty to find answers and proposed really serious cuts to the size of the provincial government. Wynne has explicitly charted a different course, preferring “growth” (pronounced “magic”) as the path out of deficits.
Harper would not have governed the way McGuinty did, and certainly not the way Wynne has. But he was brooding over politics in Ontario before either of them were around to annoy him. In 2000 the Canadian Alliance, led by Stockwell Day, lost the only federal election it would ever contest under that name and leader. Harper had publicly predicted the Alliance wouldn’t do well, but the predicted result still made him furious. The object of his anger was “eastern Canada” — basically, Ontario.
Eleven days after the election, the National Post published a bitter column from Harper. Sure, the Alliance had no clear strategy, policy or tactics, Harper admitted, and yet he clamed “this had little if anything to do with the election result.” The real fault lay with the Reform movement’s “rejection by the very electorate that, in creating the Canadian Alliance, it had twisted itself into a pretzel to please.” Which electorate? “Eastern Canada,” which “appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.”
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You start to see Harper’s irritation with an Ontario government that is often portrayed as being allied with a new Quebec government and which, in style and philosophy, is far closer to David Peterson and Jean Chrétien than to Mike Harris, Ralph Klein, or Stephen Harper. It is a longstanding (and perfectly reasonable) belief of Western conservatives that divergent philosophies held in Ottawa and Queen’s Park dilute the effectiveness of one government, if not both. I remember a Preston Manning news conference, perhaps 15 years ago, at which he argued that since Mike Harris felt one way about some issues and Jean Chrétien felt another, Chrétien should smarten up. Manning used to throw the odd Hail Mary pass like that.