OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in full campaign mode in a speech to municipal leaders Friday, mounting attacks at Ontario Premier Doug Ford as a proxy for conservative politicians.
Speaking to delegates at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ annual conference in Quebec City, Trudeau said his government is “off to a great start” with its work done in nearly four years. He claimed Liberals have outpaced the previous Conservative government when it comes to project approvals made in the same timeframe.
He alluded to funding cuts that Ontario has made over the past year, using Ford’s decision to make retroactive cuts to municipalities as a “specific and clear example.” Trudeau also accused the Ford government of not wanting to partner with Ottawa on infrastructure projects and trying to “withhold federal dollars” from citizens.
“In some jurisdictions, projects have slowed to a trickle or stopped completely. Premier Ford is playing politics with money that belongs to your communities — and your citizens are paying the price,” Trudeau said.
Watch: Ontario’s PC government cancels retroactive cuts to municipalities
Giving into pressure earlier this week, Ford backpedaled on the proposed funding cuts to public health, child care, and ambulance services. The Ontario government has been looking for ways to prune the province’s $11.7-billion deficit.
“Premier Ford signalled that for now he would hold off on slashing your funding even further,” Trudeau said. “He says he heard you. But frankly, I don’t think he has.”
The prime minister did not mention federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s name in his speech.
PM’s message is ‘dead wrong’: Ontario minister
Ontario Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton thinks the prime minister is fudging his facts.
“Prime Minister Trudeau is dead wrong,” McNaughton told HuffPost Canada in an email.
It’s time Prime Minister Trudeau put his money where his mouth is.Ontario Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton
Disagreeing with Trudeau’s claim that projects have slowed to a “trickle,” McNaughton said the provincial government has approved 54 critical infrastructure funding plans which have been submitted to the federal government.
“They include $28.6 billion in road, bridge and transit projects all across Ontario,” he said, adding the federal government has yet to approve the projects.
“The federal government has said Ontario’s priorities are their priorities. It’s time Prime Minister Trudeau put his money where his mouth is,” McNaughton said.
Intergovernmental tensions have increased in the past year with the election of more right-leaning provincial governments. Conservative leaders in five province are giving Trudeau some high-profile pushback over the carbon tax and pricing system.
The Liberal government has used the resistance to paint conservatives as climate laggards.
Trudeau told municipal leaders that Liberals were elected on a promise to work together on “cooperative federalism.” He then suggested that he’s willing to go around uncooperative provincial governments to work directly with municipalities to “put shovels in the ground” for infrastructure projects.
“We’ll figure out ways,” he said.
Scheer later addressed the same crowd and challenged Trudeau’s record on infrastructure spending.
The Conservative leader made a reference to a report by the parliamentary budget officer last year, noting how the watchdog’s office wasn’t able to get a copy of the government’s $186.7-billion infrastructure plan because it “does not exist.”
The government’s plan is “hopelessly mismanaged,” Scheer said, before moving on to take shots at Trudeau over the carbon tax, calling it a “heavy-handed, autocratic measure.”
Delegates cheered and clapped after Scheer repeated his pledge to repeal the carbon tax.
Federal Tories draft Kenney for campaign help
Trudeau’s focus on Ford isn’t new. Liberal MPs have regularly invoked the Ontario premier’s name in House of Commons debates as a political foil and have said Scheer takes his “marching orders” from Ford.
The federal Conservative leader told Global News last year that building name recognition across Canada in lead up to the 2019 election is a “monumental challenge.”
And with less than five months to go before Canadians head to the polls, some familiar Conservative names will likely be called on to campaign on Scheer’s behalf.
A source told the Globe and Mail last week that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has plans to campaign in Ontario to court immigrant voters during the fall general election.
Kenney, a former immigration minister under prime minister Stephen Harper, was an architect of the so-called ethnic vote strategy to appeal to what he called the “natural values and aspirations” of new Canadians that align with the Conservative party.
The election-winning campaign strategy was conceived in an Ottawa bar in the early 2000s, according to Kenney. Harper, drinking a diet Coke, disagreed with Kenney’s hypothesis and asked the then Alberta MP to prove him wrong.
Canadians will likely head to the polls on Oct. 21, the next fixed election date.