Sunday, September 14, 2008

Durham a gritty battleground

Urban sprawl changing political face

By Antonella Artuso, Toronto Sun
Photosource: tonyleah

On the first full day of campaigning, Jim Flaherty was testifying at the Louisiana trial of a stockbroker who threatened to kill him and his three sons over his decision to end the tax holiday for income trusts.

The same theme of investor betrayal has followed him to his home riding of Whitby-Oshawa where the Liberal Party nominated the head of the Canadian Association of Income Trust Investors/Taxpayers as its candidate.

And to cap off his rough week, Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion went postal over the sad state of federal support for cities, putting Flaherty, as the GTA voice of the Conservative Party, in the direct line of fire.

Still Flaherty battles on, rejecting the anti-urban allegations.

"I think there's a lot of noise, quite frankly, by Mayor (David) Miller saying we don't help cities," Flaherty said in an interview this week. "But if they actually look at the facts ... this government is a major help to cities, including making the gas tax sharing permanent because that gives the cities, including, of course, the City of Toronto, the opportunity for long-term planning.

"And the mayor of Montreal told me it was the most important item we could do in the budget this year ... he appreciates it even if Mayor Miller doesn't," he said.

It was a difficult start for Flaherty, one of four Conservative incumbents fighting to retain seats in Durham Region -- a vast, 2,950-square-km tapestry of cities, hamlets, farms and cottage country east of Toronto.

By GTA standards, it has been fertile territory for the Harperites, although two of the ridings -- Ajax-Pickering and Pickering Scarborough-East -- are held by Liberals.

Election observers are watching to see what happens to Flaherty, the closest Conservative MP to Toronto, and to Conservative MP Colin Carrie in Oshawa who has drawn heat over his position on waterfront development in that community.

His opponents -- Liberal Sean Godfrey and NDP Mike Shields -- are hoping to capitalize on the situation.

Premier Dalton McGuinty's high profile support of the auto sector -- and his pointed references to the lack of a federal "partner" in his endeavours -- hasn't helped Conservative fortunes in the hard-hit town, either.

No surprise that there was a last minute, pre-election announcement by the Harper government to broker a $290 million investment by GM and to invest up to $80 million in Ford Canada.

In Whitby-Oshawa, Flaherty, known for keeping the home fires burning, will be looking for a political payoff for his local largesse -- which includes a new university, the proposed Hwy. 407 extension and the promised train between Peterborough and Union Station.

The riding is changing as new suburbs grow out of corn fields, bringing residents with Toronto sensibilities into the voting mix.

New Canadians are also settling into the area, bringing their own priorities with them.

While Flaherty has so far withstood the Liberal juggernaut that is the 416 and increasingly the 905, he took his federal riding last time less impressively than expected for a politician known for delivering big-time locally.

His losing battles with McGuinty over corporate tax rates in Ontario didn't do him any political favours, either.

Still, Flaherty says his Liberal opponent this time around is a one-issue candidate parachuted into the community and known for having expressed "extremist" comments.

Brent Fullard, a former executive managing director for BMO Nesbitt Burns and founder of the Canadian Association of Income Trust Investors/Taxpayers, said he does have roots in the community having worked in the auto manufacturing sector in Oshawa.

The issues facing Whitby-Oshawa, however, are similar in many respects to those across the country, he said.

"Do we have a transparent, open and accountable government? Are we being governed by principles or are we being governed by politics? This very election is being brought to Canadians at the cost of ... $300 million because Harper wanted (an election), for his reasons. We had three by-elections that were one day away from being finished. For me, that's not my version of democracy.

"This is a man who committed by law to not have an election until a fixed election date and then we find out there's some fine print there. So I consider Stephen Harper to be Stephen 'Loophole' Harper," he said.

For two years, Fullard has campaigned on behalf of Canadians who were promised by the Harper government that income trusts would not be taxed only to have Flaherty suddenly announce the opposite.

"I'm not going to Whitby-Oshawa to hold Jim Flaherty responsible for the truck plant shutting down because that's preposterous because that's not his fault ... but I will blame him for the long litany of things that are his fault and I'm going to hold him to account in his riding," Fullard said.

Fullard sent out e-mails in 2007 that drew comparisons between Harper and Adolph Hitler, comments he withdrew as a newly-minted candidate.

"What prompted me to say those inappropriate things that I've now apologized for was when I opened up the (newspaper) in April and I find that the Conservatives are in the name of ethnic outreach programs going around and profiling in every riding in this country people by way of their race, their ethnicity and their religion ... that is so near to the act of discrimination," Fullard said. "I am an extreme candidate insofar as I'm an extremely committed individual to ensuring that truth be told by governments, and that accountability actually means accountability."

The local issue for Fullard is the economy, and he says a Liberal government is fully prepared to follow through on the promises of the Conservative government to invest in GM and Ford.

"And so a Liberal government has made the same commitment as has been agreed to by the Conservatives, and the operative question is -- whose promise are you more apt to rely on?" Fullard said.

The dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs is a pressing issue for all Durham ridings.

The pain is beginning to be felt even in the well-tended streets of Durham surburbia.

Durham Regional Chair Roger Anderson points out the region's social services costs are climbing accordingly.

"I think the government, whichever government's elected, has to get back into social housing," Anderson said. "There's a huge demand across the 905. There's no money. We have a capital repair bill of well over a couple of million dollars that we can't afford that was given to us by the provincial and federal governments."

Anderson also cites the need to unravel the knot that is the 60,000 acres of land set aside for 30 years for the Pickering Airport, which never got off the ground. The issue has vexed politicians and divided locals, some seeing the land as a unique opportunity to preserve green and agricultural lands and others salivating over the vast development potential.