PM’s attack on Doug Ford is risky

Justin Trudeau was on television again this week badmouthing Doug Ford.

This time, Canada’s prime minister was scolding Ontario’s premier for cutting legal aid to refugee claimants and immigrants.

Ford’s Progressive Conservative government made the cuts because it contends that refugee claimants are a federal responsibility.

If Ottawa wants to ensure that asylum seekers have access to legal advice, the province argues, then it should pick up the tab.

Trudeau announced Monday that his Liberal government would do just that — for a year at least. He said the move would cost Ottawa $26 million.

On the face of it, Trudeau’s announcement was a victory for Ford. It confirmed that the Ontario premier has followed through on his pledge to shift more of the financial responsibility for the refugee system onto the federal government.

But in the weird world of Canadian politics, it was portrayed as a masterful attempt by Trudeau to link his chief rival, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, with the highly unpopular Ford.

“Yet another conservative government — the government of Doug Ford — is walking away from services to the most vulnerable,” Trudeau intoned sadly.

“Conservative politicians like to say they’re for the people. But then they end up cutting services for the most vulnerable. It’s what they do.”

Left unsaid was Trudeau’s real message: If you don’t like Ford, you’ll hate Scheer.

Yet there is little evidence for equating Scheer with Ford. The federal Conservative leader’s style is not as bumptious as that of Ford. So far, at least, Scheer is not campaigning on promises like buck-a-beer.

More to the point, it’s not clear what spending, if any, Scheer would cut if elected. With a few exceptions, such as his pledge to scrap the Canada Infrastructure Bank, he hasn’t said.

True, Scheer’s plan to eliminate the federal deficit over five years echoes that of Ford. But it also echoes the pledge Trudeau made in 2015.

Indeed, the truth about Canadian politics is that in most areas, the mainstream parties are not that far apart.

Trudeau attacks conservative governments for cutting spending to the needy. He conveniently forgets that the most savage cuts to Canada’s social safety net in the post 1945 era were made by a Liberal government under Jean Chretien.

Nor are all conservatives the same. Quebec’s conservative government supports carbon pricing and opposes oil pipelines. Alberta’s conservative government takes the reverse position.

In British Columbia, the provincial conservative party calls itself the Liberals.

It’s not entirely clear how Trudeau’s demonization of Doug Ford is going over in Ontario.

The Liberals are inching higher in the polls. But Ontarians don’t usually base their federal election choices on their views of the provincial government.

In 2011, for instance, Ontarians definitively repudiated the federal Liberals under Michael Ignatieff in order to elect Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Yet a few months later, Ontarians happily re-elected (albeit as a minority government) Dalton McGuinty’s provincial Liberals.

Still, the Trudeau Liberals seem convinced that their anti-Ford campaign will produce results. On Tuesday, Trudeau was at it again.

His Liberal government, he told a Toronto audience, has authorized billions in infrastructure spending for the city.

Alas, he said, these much-needed projects are being held up by — you guessed it — Doug Ford.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist for Torstar Syndication Services.

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