TORONTO - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's antipathy to pension reform that would help middle-class Canadians is somewhere between "offensive and inexplicable," Ontario's premier said Saturday as she girds for a possible spring election.
"Now this statement may be true on a number of fronts, but on this one in particular: I'm impatient with Stephen Harper," Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne said amid roaring cheers at the party's annual general meeting in Toronto.
Harper's "willful and ideological indifference to the retirement income crisis" is hitting Ontario and the rest of the country hard, she said.
"It's somewhere between offensive and inexplicable to ask that people who've worked hard all their lives to be rewarded with a retirement that takes them out of the middle class," Wynne said.
"That might be Stephen Harper's way, but it's not our way. It's not the Liberal way."
The Harper Conservatives are standing in the way of strengthening the Canada Pension Plan, she added. "So I say to Stephen Harper quite directly: If you won't lead the way, then get out of the way."
Several provinces, including Prince Edward Island and Manitoba, are banding together to explore options to enhance retirement income, saying they're disappointed with the federal government's unilateral decision to shut down discussions on enhancing CPP.
Many middle-income earners may not be saving enough to ensure a good standard of living in retirement, they say.
The Harper government didn't directly respond to Wynne's contention that some Canadians may face a retirement that takes them out of the middle class. It sent an email statement saying Wynne's vision of pension reform would hurt business and shrink Canadians' pay cheques.
Harper is a "very convenient scapegoat" for the Liberals, who've been embroiled in spending scandals and doubled the province's debt since they took power in 2003, said the Ontario Progressive Conservatives.
Pensions aren't free, said Tory critic Rod Jackson. "They come out of the taxpayer's pocket and to trust this government to give them more so that they can save it for us is comical at best."
While Wynne tried to take Harper down on pensions, she also ripped a page from his election playbook, painting the governing Liberals as the safe, steady alternative to the "reckless" Progressive Conservatives and inexperienced New Democrats.
She resurrected the ghosts of Tory past, saying she didn't want a sequel to the "slasher film" from the 1990s starring former premier Mike Harris, whose Common Sense Revolution sparked massive protests and labour unrest.
It would also be a mistake to put the anti-business NDP in charge of Ontario's fragile economic recovery, Wynne added.
The premier took a jab their commitment to their leftist roots, saying they didn't have a coherent position on minimum wage — which the Liberals plan to raise — expanding public transit or pensions.
But Wynne didn't mention Horwath by name, while Opposition Leader Tim Hudak had star billing in her speech.
The Tories said it's a sign Wynne sees their party as a "true threat" to the Liberals. But her softer tone with the NDP may also be part of a Liberal campaign strategy to woo disgruntled New Democrats who feel the party has lost its way.
Wynne knows that NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is popular and voters like her, said New Democrat Gilles Bisson. They realize that attacking Horwath won't help the Liberals.
Despite taking a more aggressive tone towards her rivals, Wynne said she's still committed to a "positive and constructive" way of doing politics.
"I wasn't actually name-calling," she said following her speech.
"I know (the next election) will be a tough fight, but I will not attack people's personalities. I will not attack individuals."
The party test-drove new slogans over the weekend to sell the Wynne and the Liberal brand. Ontarians are in "safe hands" with the governing party. Wynne, who became premier just over a year ago but has plenty of cabinet experience, is "what leadership is."
An election could be around the corner if the minority Liberals fail to pass their spring budget, whose date hasn't been announced yet.
Convention delegates got a crash course in campaigning, with workshops on such tasks as fundraising, communications and rural campaign strategies.
Outside, dozens of protesters banged on pots and pans, calling on the Liberals to boost social assistant rates and further raise the minimum wage to $14 an hour.
Organizer Liisa Schofield said that Wynne's actions don't back up her rhetoric about helping the poor and disadvantaged.
"Premier Wynne talks a lot about social justice, presenting herself as the social justice premier. But all that we've seen is further cuts" to assistance programs, she said.
Protester Diane Meredith said Wynne should move to bolster spending on welfare and disability help.
"If she wants to get re-elected and she wants to really say she's listening to the people of this province then she needs to address the losses and the things that are being cut, and have been cut consistently over the last 10 years."
With files from Will Campbell
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