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Flaherty endorses Hudak, saying Ontario ‘can’t afford’ McGuinty

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is using the country’s finances to justify a heated partisan attack against the Ontario Liberal government, hoping to boost the fortunes of his Tory cousins by blasting the McGuinty government’s fiscal record.

Read the story in the Globe and Mail

Focusing on the province’s debt and deficits, Mr. Flaherty told a Empire and Canadian Club audience that Ontario “can’t afford four more years of the same Dalton McGuinty government.”

Mr. Flaherty, who spoke after provincial Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak at the Toronto lunch, raised the spectre of sovereign debt crises in Europe as he warned about the perils of ignoring the province’s $14-billion deficit.

“I spend time at G20 meetings and there are problems in Europe and weakness in the U.S.,” he said. “Our country needs Ontario to get back on the right track.”

The federal minister’s actions run the risk of poisoning relations between Ottawa and Ontario should Mr. Flaherty’s preferred party fail to come out on top when Ontarians head to the polls Oct. 6.

His comments also appeared at odds with an edict issued last month by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office, urging federal Conservatives against “becoming the story” in provincial elections. The memo urged MPs to avoid statements that could make it difficult for the federal party to negotiate with the eventual winner.

Mr. Flaherty – a former Mike Harris cabinet minister – also put in a word for his wife, Christine Elliott, who is running for the PCs in the suburban GTA riding of Whitby-Oshawa. “I received some guidance at home this morning about what I may say,” he said.

Part of Mr. McGuinty’s campaign message is that he is better placed to represent Ontario in upcoming negotiations with Ottawa over the renewal of federal-provincial transfers for health and social spending.

The Ontario Liberals were quick to respond, pointing to a report showing the federal deficit had tripled in July compared to a year earlier. Campaign co-chair Greg Sorbara said bringing Mr. Flaherty to speak before a joint meeting of the Canadian Club and Empire Club was a sign of desperation in the final days of the campaign.

“Today’s speech was full of anger and vitriol,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of campaigns, and I know desperation when I hear it.”

Mr. Sorbara said the provincial deficit is largely the result of increased government spending through the recession, as governments around the world borrowed heavily to stimulate economic growth.

“This is part of the dishonesty of Tim Hudak,” he said. “He knows very well the Ontario and federal [deficits] were part of a nationwide agreement to make sure Canada could weather the economic storm.”

The platforms of the Ontario Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and NDP all promise to erase the province’s deficit by 2017-2018.

This isn’t the first time questions have been raised over the role of federal Conservatives in the Ontario race. Mr. Harper’s parliamentary secretary – Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro – apologized after commissioning a local poll in response to a local newspaper’s poll that showed the Liberal candidate with a commanding lead.

And questions also surfaced after it was revealed that Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright – who penned the order to MPs about not becoming the story in provincial campaigns – played host at a $250-a-ticket wine and cheese fundraiser for Mike Yen, the PC candidate in Trinity-Spadina.

Mr. Flaherty’s spokesman rejected the notion that the federal finance minister had become the story Friday.

“Stop the presses! Jim Flaherty supports Ontario PCs and Tim Hudak,” Chisholm Pothier wrote sarcastically in an e-mail. “The news today was Mr. Hudak’s speech. Regardless, we’ll work with whatever government there is in Ontario.”

Federal NDP finance critic Peggy Nash said Mr. Flaherty’s comments could hurt Ottawa’s relations with Ontario should the PCs lose the election.

“One would expect that the federal finance minister, who will have to deal with whatever kind of government is elected in Ontario, might [find it] a bit more difficult if he’s very, very actively engaged in the election,” she said.

Mr. Flaherty is the second Harper minister to provide a personal endorsement on the campaign trail. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney called Mr. Hudak “a champion of equality of opportunity” at a Moon Festival dinner in Toronto two weeks ago.

For his part, Mr. Hudak was beaming after the endorsement as he took questions from reporters.

“I’m very pleased,” he said. “His words meant a lot to me.”

Tax-credit pledge becomes flashpoint on Ontario campaign trail

The Ontario Liberals’ pledge to provide tax credits for businesses that hire skilled immigrants is becoming a flashpoint in the provincial election campaign, with a senior party official accusing Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak of opposing anything that has a foreign flavour to it.

Mr. Hudak took aim at the initiative on Tuesday morning, saying immigrants should be offended by a plan to provide tax credits to companies that hire them, because he says it suggests they can’t compete fairly with other Canadians.

Read the story, written with Karen Howlett, at the Globe and Mail (with 1,500 comments)

“Tim’s Hudak’s comments are an affront to all Ontarians,” Liberal campaign co-chairman Greg Sorbara said in an interview. “This is a simple and specific program to assist Ontarians – citizens, landed immigrants, whatever – to get the training that they need with a tax credit so that they can actually practice the profession that they trained for.”

Mr. Sorbara accused the Tory leader of trying to appeal to the hard right fringe of his party by opposing not only tax credits to help highly skilled newcomers land jobs but also scholarships for foreign students and investments by anything other than North American-based companies.

He is referring to Mr. Hudak’s own campaign pledges to cancel the Liberals’ $30-million scholarship program for foreign students as well as rip up a $7-billion green-energy deal with South Korean multinational Samsung.

“If Samsung were IBM or Kodak or any number of North American-based firms,” Mr. Sorbara said, “I don’t think Tim Hudak would be making the same kind of noise.”

What he is doing, Mr. Sorbara said, is engaging in the “politics of division” and playing to an audience nostalgic for an Ontario of the 1950s. His marching orders are coming from “somewhere in Eastern Ontario,” Mr. Sorbara added, referring to Randy Hillier, the controversial former head of the Ontario Landowners Association who is the MPP for Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington.

“My fear is that Randy Hillier has taken over the party,” Mr. Sorbara said.

For his part, Mr. Hudak made his first campaign appearance by venturing into Scarborough on Tuesday to talk about education with the seven-member Vohra family, who belong to the Progressive Conservative Party. But it was his response to the Liberal policy that yielded the most questions. Wearing a blue suit and a blue shirt unbuttoned at the collar, Mr. Hudak took questions in the backyard and explained why his party would oppose the Liberal plan that would see employers receive a $10,000 credit for hiring immigrants.

“This program offends new Canadians the most,” he said. “They are working hard and trying to climb the ladder.”

The party was quick to call the program “affirmative action” when it was announced Monday, and Mr. Hudak continued to make the point from the backyard podium. He said his grandparents were also immigrants, and would not have wanted an advantage over other Canadians.

The campaign distributed flyers to journalists on the media bus with the heading “Inside Ontario, you’re left out. Outside Ontario? You’re in Luck.”

Echoing comments made by candidates on Twitter when the Liberals launched their platform Monday, the Conservatives are looking to appeal to Ontario residents who feel they are being overlooked in favour of immigrants.

“Dalton McGuinty will pay companies $10,000 to hire anybody but you,” Mr. Hudak said of his Liberal rival.

The pamphlet lists three concerns: the $30-million program for foreign students, tax money going to help entice Samsung to set up plants in the province and the $10,000 tax credit promised Monday for employers who hire “skilled immigrants.”

The Liberal Party – who barred a Conservative candidate from their campaign launch Monday, saying it was by invitation only – sent two representatives to the news conference.

They were allowed to stay, and filmed Mr. Hudak while he spoke. Afterward, they distributed their own news releases calling Mr. Hudak “Tea Party Tim.”

The release called him a hypocrite because he has promised to provide a tax credit for immigrants so employers can help them receive language training.

The program – which the Conservatives introduced as a private-member’s bill in 2010 – would apply to any employee who has been in the country fewer than two years.

Mr. Hudak dismissed the comparison, saying his program would only amount to about $400 a worker and apply only to immigrants who have already found work.