Power couple

He's finance minister, she wants to be Ontario premier

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What if Christine Elliott were premier of Ontario and she had a conversation with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty about harmonizing the provincial sales tax with the GST, or about the EI funding formula being unfair to her province?

This is not every day pillow talk between husband and wife, but it could be a discussion across the breakfast table at their home in Whitby, Ont., where their 18-year-old triplet sons have grown up and are finishing high school next month.

Are they like the couple in the tire ad who agree to disagree about almost everything? Only on policy, as she stakes out her centrist and fairness-for-Ontario turf in a surprisingly competitive bid for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

"They'll just have to change it," she says of the EI funding formula. Tom Courchene, an eminent expert on fiscal federalism, says Ontario should simply consider opting out of the program if it can't get Ottawa to change the regional wait times for eligibility.

She wouldn't go that far. But there's something about the tone of her voice, and the sparkling amusement on her face, as she answers the question over coffee at Zoe's bar at the Chateau Laurier. It is one of those moments encountered in every marriage - her mind is made up. There's no point discussing it.

For his part, Flaherty has already answered the question after the Ontario Tory party criticized his sales-tax harmonization deal in the Ontario budget.

He said, Irish eyes smiling at a speech at McGill University that evening, that he told his office to put it out that "Jim and Christine are going to remain married."

More seriously, Flaherty says: "We've been together for 28 years and married for 23 of them, we've overcome a lot more as a couple."

Like the fact that one of their triplets, John, was born with a learning disability. For years, while Flaherty was in the Harris government at Queen's Park, she was at home in Whitby raising their three boys, one of them a child with special needs. For years, Flaherty and Elliott have been quietly involved in their community as parents of children with disabilities.

It is a narrative of coping and triumph familiar to thousands of parents in similar situations. "I don't know how she does it," says Antonia Maioni, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, herself the mother of triplet boys, one of whom has special needs.

Jim Flaherty, 59, glows with pride as he talks about John's involvement with Special Olympics, "an amazing program," and Christine, 54, speaks of his progress in basketball and baseball, where his brothers are "his biggest fans."

Which is not to say the other boys, Galen and Quinn, don't rate parental mentions. Galen, a thespian and football star, is going to McGill in the fall, while Quinn, who is interested in the business of sports, is going to the University of Western Ontario. Meantime, they are graduating high school in mid-June, just before the PC leadership vote in 106 Ontario ridings.

The leadership race is a 100-day sprint in three phases. The first phase, the selling of memberships, ending this week, is Elliott's opportunity to break into the race. With its membership down to 6,000 provincewide, all four leadership camps - Elliott, Tim Hudak, Frank Klees and Randy Hillier - have been selling and signing up memberships. The second phase, Elliot's breakout opportunity, is a series of five leadership debates, her best chance to define and differentiate her candidacy from the others, who are crowding the space on the right. The third phase is two preferential ballots on June 21 and 25, before the results are announced in Markham, Ont., on June 27.

All 106 ridings are created equal, with 100 votes each, distributed proportionately. Affinities and alliances for a second ballot will be critical in determining the winner. This is not like a delegated convention that will be settled on the floor, it's a word-of- mouth operation that will be settled by phone.

What's interesting in terms of Elliott's positioning is how much space she is able to occupy on the political spectrum. All the other candidates are significantly to the right of her centrist positions, leaving her the centre and Red Tory wings on the left while she mends fences on the right.

Hudak began as the heavily favoured front-runner, but has been the victim of front-runner syndrome. The media like a competitive race, and the party wants one. Hudak is also perceived as the candidate of the Harris wing of the party, and he is also getting some blowback because of the tactics of "the little shits" from the Harris days at Queen's Park, who are trying to hijack this race out of the Harper government and the Langevin Block in Ottawa.

Klees and Hillier are trying to break into the media frame, but so far Hudak and Elliott are dominating it. The debates will be their opportunity, as well as hers.

With Ontario's manufacturing heartland taking a huge hit in the recession, Elliott's conversation with voters centres on a recovery built on a post-manufacturing economy such as the one in the Durham region around Oshawa-Whitby - ground zero of the auto industry at General Motors, but also heavily into services. Energy is an issue in Ontario, particularly its need for electricity, which means a conversation with Quebec about more interconnections.

Then there's the incumbent premier, Liberal Dalton McGuinty. "People are getting tired of him," she says. One thing Ontario has is a date for the next election, October 2011, and Elliott has charted what she terms "a path to victory" for the Ontario PCs.

By then, Jim Flaherty might be out of politics, in his next life as a former G7 finance minister practising law back on Bay St., where they first met. In those days, as a young associate dating a partner, she had to leave the firm.

Next time, it could be Flaherty's turn to move on. They would both be all right with that.

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