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Oliver says he didn't intrude on Ontario campaign by criticizing pension plan

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OTTAWA - Federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver says he didn't intrude on the Ontario election campaign when he criticized the economic centrepiece of provincial Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne's platform.

The Conservative government found itself knee-deep in the budding campaign last week when Prime Minister Stephen Harper panned Wynne's proposal to introduce a new mandatory pension plan for Ontario.

On Monday, Oliver echoed his boss when he said the province's economy is too fragile to support what he dismissed as a new tax on Ontario voters.

"It's not the time, in my opinion, to impose this type of tax when the Ontario economy is so fragile," Oliver said of a proposal he argues will cost $3.5 billion for Ontario workers and companies.

Wynne's pension plan proposal is little more than a tax voters would refuse to support, Harper told a news conference Friday after Wynne effectively kicked off the campaign — and called out Harper in the process.

"On a number of important issues, the interests of the people of Ontario are at odds with the policies of Stephen Harper's government," she said.

"Ontario workers want improved pensions for a more secure retirement. Stephen Harper will not act."

The following day, Oliver took aim at Wynne's pension pitch in a CBC radio interview, warning it would hurt Ontario's weakened economy and kill jobs.

Wynne is no stranger to beating up on Ottawa. But it's already clear that singling out the prime minister is a key element of her campaign strategy.

She has accused the federal Conservatives of balancing their books on the backs of Ontarians by cutting transfer payments for health and social spending, and described federal support from the Canada Pension Plan as lacklustre.

And on Monday, she singled out Harper by saying his prime-ministerial pension is about 10 times the maximum payout available under the CPP.

"Stephen Harper when he retires is going to have about 10 times that amount in his pension," she said.

"So the reality is that if he doesn't believe that the Canada Pension Plan should be enhanced, then he should move out of the way and let Ontario do its work."

University of Waterloo political science professor Peter Woolstencroft said it's common for provincial leaders to attack Ottawa as a way to show they will defend voters. What's unusual, he said, is to see a federal government to strike back.

In the leadup to Quebec's election last month, the Harper government made a point of saying virtually nothing about the campaign.

"I'm surprised the federal government even bothered to pay any attention," Woolstencroft said.

"(The Conservatives) are miffed because, whether you agree with them or not, they think it's a cost to the economy and it will make it harder for employers to hire people."

A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office tried to ease tensions Saturday by saying it will be up to Ontario voters to decide the election and that the federal Conservatives will work with whatever government is elected.

Wynne called the June 12 election after opposition parties, in particular the NDP, refused to support the provincial budget, which included the pension proposal.

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