TORONTO - Ontario's Progressive Conservatives persisted Monday in their attempts to fan the flames of an immigrant tax credit controversy, though somewhat turning down the heat on a minor jobs initiative that has been propelled to the fore of the election battleground.
A Liberal proposal to give a tax credit to businesses that hire certain new Canadians has received a staggering amount of attention in the first week of the campaign, and the second week began no differently.
The $12-million plan aimed at people in professions such as architecture and engineering equals roughly .01 per cent of the overall Ontario budget, which was just under $114 billion for 2011-12.
And it would affect about 1,200 people, just a fraction of the province's 13 million residents.
But since it was announced in the Liberal platform a week ago, the campaign has seen unrelenting bluster from the Progressive Conservatives in the form of radio ads and press releases and from Leader Tim Hudak himself.
He initially slammed the plan as an "affirmative action program to hire foreign workers," which the Liberals immediately decried as xenophobic.
To spend so much time attacking a two-term premier over such a small platform plank is curious, said Cameron Anderson, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.
"It is seemingly a minor issue in the broad scheme of things and it seems like it's kind of an odd issue for the Conservatives to build at least the first week of the campaign (on)," he said. "It's a surprising decision."
Before the Liberals' platform release, the Conservative approach seemed to be to brand McGuinty as the "Tax Man," and to suggest that he couldn't be trusted not to raise taxes again. But since they honed in on the immigrant employment issue, taxes haven't received as much attention.
York University political science professor Robert Drummond said he would have expected to hear a lot from the opposition parties about the spending controversy over eHealth, the agency that is creating electronic health records, and squandered more than $1 billion without much to show for it.
At the heart of what the Conservatives seem to be saying is that unemployed people who couldn't take advantage of the tax credit are being neglected by the Liberals, Drummond said, though the choice of language may have distorted the message.
"The way in which the Conservatives have phrased their opposition...that's enabled the (Liberals) to take the moral high ground," he said.
"I think if I were in the (Liberals') shoes at this point, I'd be trying to find some way to say, 'I'm doing something about general unemployment and jobs in general.'"
A speech by Hudak in Mississauga on Monday showed a move away from the language of "foreign workers" to "special favourite" or "a select few," though there were still a couple of mentions of the offending term.
"I think Dalton McGuinty was wrong to bring in an affirmative action program to pay companies $10,000 to hire foreign workers, and I think that's why Dalton McGuinty backpedalled," Hudak said.
The party also released a new radio ad Monday, slamming the tax credit as unfair to hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in Ontario. But while the "affirmative action" phrase was thrown in, there was no reference to "foreigners."
The "infinitesimally" small program, in the context of overall government spending, may have attracted the Tories' attention because it was poorly communicated at first, but the language in the attacks has been "unproductive," said Myer Siemiatycki, a political science professor at Ryerson.
"At one level it is only about 1,200 people, but I think Mr. Hudak has blown it inappropriately out of proportion and has used this as kind of a wedge to try to portray the policy and the (Liberals) as somehow favouring foreigners," he said.
"I think the messaging needed to be a lot better."
McGuinty called on Hudak over the weekend to apologize for his use of the term "foreign workers," but Hudak has indicated he will not.
"I think he's crossed a line," McGuinty said Monday. "I believe he needs to admit to that and I think what he needs to do is to apologize to those Ontarians, those Canadian citizens that he attacked."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has tried to keep above the fray, saying people in Ontario are disappointed in the tenor of the conversation.
"While they're hurling insults at each other, the real problems that people are facing day in and day out are not being addressed," she said Monday.
Staying out of it will likely play to Horwath's advantage, said Siemiatycki.
"There are criticisms to be made of both the Liberals and the Conservatives on how they've handled this and I think what Ms. Horwath has effectively done is to walk a middle ground that acknowledges that there's something problematic with the way both sides are proceeding," he said.