Day Six on the campaign trail was supposed to provide an opportunity for the two frontrunners to showcase their credentials for managing Ontario's fragile economy.
Instead, Dalton McGuinty and Tim Hudak were at separate events in Mississauga on Monday, both trying to score political points over a small Liberal program that would provide tax credits to companies that hire highly skilled new Canadians and that has become the biggest issue in the campaign for the Oct. 6 election.
For the second day in a row, the Liberal Leader called on Mr. Hudak to apologize to new Canadians for his characterization of the program as an "affirmative action plan for foreign workers."
"I think he's crossed a line," Mr. McGuinty said after touring a factory that makes batteries for electric vehicles. "I believe he needs to admit to that. What he needs to do is apologize to those Ontarians, those Canadian citizens that he attacked."
Liberal Party insiders believe they have found an issue that makes it abundantly clear the Progressive Conservative Leader is not ready to govern Canada's largest province, a point Mr. McGuinty reinforced on Monday when he said Mr. Hudak is "out of step" with the values of Ontarians.
"I believe in Ontario there is no us and them," he said. "There's just us."
For his part, Mr. Hudak refused to apologize on Monday. However, he is no longer referring to the potential recipients of the program, all of whom must be Canadian citizens to qualify, as foreigners.
At a morning news conference in a Mississauga parking lot, Mr. Hudak stood between two cardboard cutouts.
He named one Bob and the other Jim, and said Bob was a forestry worker from Pennsylvania who had lived in Canada for fewer than five years. Jim, meanwhile, was positioned as a life-long Ontarian. It was a wry reference to the Liberal plan to provide a $10,000 training tax credit to employers who hire certain highly-skilled newcomers, such as architects, lawyers, accountants and pharmacists.
"Both Jim and Bob are similar in many ways, but they differ in one big one," Mr. Hudak said. "An employer who hires Bob would receive Dalton McGuinty's $10,000 affirmative action subsidy. The employer who hires Jim gets nothing. You tell me – who is going to get hired? Who is going to get the job?"
To qualify for the Liberal program, an immigrant must be a Canadian citizen who has lived in Canada less than five years – although the Liberals said the program isn't for four years and 364 days, but rather that immigrants would still be eligible throughout that fifth year.
It's this type of refinement that Mr. Hudak cites when he expresses his exasperation at the program. He said they've changed the parameters several times, and that no matter how it's presented the bottom line is that it's a special program for a specific group of workers.
"This latest policy on the fly is not merely confusing. It actually makes no sense at all," he said. "So here we have Liberal damage control posing as economic policy. Dalton McGuinty's affirmative-action scheme was always divisive and now it's completely incoherent as well."
He used the opportunity to push his employment agenda forward, saying he would spur-private sector hiring by "giving consumers the confidence they need to start spending again."
"I believe Ontario should be the leader in creating jobs for everyone," he said. "How do you do that? You make us friendly for investment again. You lower taxes. Give consumers confidence to spend, so we can rebuild Ontario's middle class and give them the security and the comfort to spend in the economy and create jobs."
Mr. Hudak is criticizing the Liberal proposal as a divisive policy that pits one group of Canadians against another, even though his own party introduced a private-member's bill that included a wage subsidy for providing newcomers with language training.
Mr. McGuinty turned the tables on Mr. Hudak earlier in the day in a speech to the Toronto Board of Trade, using the Tory leader's own tough-on-crime rhetoric about "playing by the rules" to denounce his stance on the tax credit program.
The program is designed to build a stronger workforce by making sure highly skilled newcomers – engineers, architects, accountants – can do the job they were trained to do, Mr. McGuinty said in his speech. The No Skills Left Behind training credit, he said, will get these professionals "who have played by the rules" the work experience and training they need to get their certification.
"You can't get work experience here without your certification," Mr. McGuinty told the business audience. "It's a Catch-22."
It was the Liberal Leader's first major speech on the economy during the election campaign. His proposal to provide businesses with tax credits to train highly-skilled new Canadians is very modest – the Liberals are allocating annual funding of just $12-million a year – but he devoted about two minutes in his speech to what is emerging as a major wedge issue.
Mr. McGuinty quoted from a report prepared by the Toronto Board of Trade to reinforce his point: "Failing to recognize the qualifications and experience of new immigrants costs the Toronto region's economy approximately $1.5- to $2.25-billion each year."