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In attacking Ontario, Ottawa plays a dangerous game

Jim Flaherty's relentless criticism of Dalton McGuinty's government has something to do with politics and personality – Mr. Flaherty has a deep dislike for Grits, especially of the Ontario variety – but a great deal more to do with the fragile psyche of the Ontario voter.

Both the Harper and McGuinty governments are struggling to convince the troubled middle class that they know how to make the province great again. That struggle is all the fiercer because those same voters are responsible for electing both of them.

This dynamic tension lies behind the unofficial campaign of the Finance Minister to undermine Dwight Duncan, his provincial counterpart. And that tension will only increase as the big province struggles to regain its economic footing.

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Mr. Flaherty was at it again on Sunday. "It's not as if Ontario doesn't have anything going for it – it has lots going for it," he told CTV's Question Period. The province's problem, he said, is that "its government needs to manage its finances better."

When challenged with Mr. Flaherty's criticism, Mr. McGuinty took the high road.

"We are always at our best when we find the common ground and work to build each other and to build together," he maintained in an interview with Global. Mr. McGuinty was one of the first victims of a harshly negative ad campaign. "He's just not up to the job," the Harris Conservatives branded him in 1999, when Mr. Flaherty was Ontario Finance Minister. Mr. McGuinty learned four years later that winning is the best defence against a smear campaign.

The fact that Mr. Flaherty's wife, Christine Elliot, is deputy leader of the provincial Conservatives hardly helps the cause of amity.

There are actually more similarities to the two governments than either would care to admit. Both Stephen Harper's Conservatives and Dalton McGuinty's Liberals spent heavily in the middle years of the last decade, and both sent their governments deeply into deficit to combat the 2009 recession.

Now both have set out to bring their budgets back into balance, in large measure by cutting back on public servants' salaries or jobs.

Both governments place a heavy emphasis on the energy sector. The Ontario Liberals adopted an industrial strategy that subsidized green-energy producers, in the hope (which turned out to be vain) that the province could become a leading supplier of alternative energy technology. The federal Conservatives have adopted the more conventional approach of encouraging development of the Alberta oil sands.

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Both are struggling with a stark new reality: As Ontario's manufacturing base dwindles, it becomes less able to generate jobs and growth. To deal with this, the millions of voters who live on the edges of Toronto and other Ontario cities have opted for a Conservative government in Ottawa, to protect the nation's finances, and a Liberal government at Queen's Park, to protect health care, education and city services.

The two governments are able to co-operate when it truly matters, such as in rescuing the auto industry or harmonizing sales taxes. But the partisan politics can be nasty and this is bound to get worse.

Political scientist David Cameron has called Ontario premiers generals without an army. However much Ontario politicians criticize Ottawa, Ontario voters – perhaps uniquely in Canada – see themselves as Canadians first, expecting the federal and provincial governments to co-operate in the national interest.

But with money bleeding out of the province to Quebec and Atlantic Canada through a plethora of government programs – even though Ontario's growth is below the national average and unemployment above it – those voters may start to listen to a Premier who demands a new and fairer deal for the province.

Shepherding a precarious minority government, Mr. McGuinty will be tempted to match the bite of Mr. Flaherty's rhetoric. The new sick man of Confederation may become an angry man, too.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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