Stephen Harper says Kathleen Wynne should focus on the challenges in her province and “not on confrontation” after he was asked why he’s not met with the Ontario Premier despite her much-publicized requests for face time.
His pointed comments Thursday demonstrate growing strains in the relationship between the Conservative Prime Minister and the leader of Canada’s most populous province, who also happens to be a staunch ally of rival Justin Trudeau.
Ms. Wynne broadcast her concerns last month after a meeting proposal was turned down by the Prime Minister’s Office, saying it had been 11 months since she had met with Mr. Harper and noting the Prime Minister ignored a previous request she’d made in September.
Mr. Harper was pressed Thursday at a news conference on why it’s been so long since he sat down with Ms. Wynne.
The Prime Minister said he anticipates he will “have another meeting” with the Ontario leader “at some point in time.”
But then he proceeded to suggest Ms. Wynne should stop trying to sow conflict.
He urged Ontario, which is grappling with big deficits, to make the problems facing the province its top priority.
“I would encourage the government of Ontario to focus on those things; not on confrontation.”
Mr. Harper noted the federal government, by comparison, is set to balance its budget in 2015.
“We’re balancing our budget, we’re cutting taxes and we’re delivering more services; we think this is the direction the people of Ontario and people of Canada want and we would encourage the government of Ontario to follow that direction.”
The spat between Mr. Harper and Ms. Wynne is about far more than a lack of face time.
Ms. Wynne made her fight with the federal government the hallmark of the Liberals’ 2014 election campaign. She has repeatedly demanded Ottawa play a bigger role in – and pony up more money for – such things as infrastructure. Mr. Harper’s Conservatives have insisted the provinces must take the lead on those files.
Liberals have denied Ms. Wynne is taking aim at Mr. Harper to draw attention away from problems at home. She says she wants to discuss infrastructure, the auto sector, internal trade, transfers, employment insurance, retirement incomes and violence against aboriginal women and girls.
Mr. Harper’s approach to federal-provincial relations has differed from those of many of his predecessors. He has not attended a first ministers’ meeting since winning a majority government in 2011, and prefers to deal with premiers one-on-one. In 2011, he did not negotiate health-care transfers with the premiers but instead informed them transfers would only rise with inflation after 2017.
Ms. Wynne on Thursday said she and Mr. Harper had to set aside “personal animosity” and sit down for a meeting.
“Those of us who get into politics have to be able, I believe, to focus on the issues that are important to our constituents and not get caught up in personal animosity,” she told reporters. “I really don’t think it’s helpful.”
Earlier this week, Ms. Wynne even poked fun at her long-running inability to get a meeting with the Prime Minister in a This Hour Has 22 Minutes sketch. In the scene, comedian Mark Critch tries to help the Premier write a persuasive letter to Mr. Harper.
At one point, Mr. Critch advises that she pre-emptively tear her letters up before mailing them to Mr. Harper, as that is what he will end up doing with them anyway.