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Jason Kenney says there's no rift in Tory caucus, laughs off leadership talk

Jason Kenney in Ottawa on Wednesday, February 12, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Jason Kenney in Ottawa on Wednesday, February 12, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Employment Minister Jason Kenney says there's no federal Conservative caucus rift that he knows of and that he remains "good friends" with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Kenney and Flaherty have been at odds in recent public comments ranging from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to income splitting and the Canada Job Grant.

"Minister Flaherty and I are very good friends and I'll tell you, we're both committed to the same objectives and both very proud of our Irish heritage," he said Friday in St. John's, N.L.

Kenney has praised Flaherty as the best finance minister on the planet but the two have clashed recently. Kenney, who was in the city to speak to a business awards luncheon, also laughed off suggestions that any perceived conflict may have to do with his own leadership ambitions.

"I would say we have a leader, a great one, in Mr. Harper. And I'm looking forward to running under his leadership in the next election."

Political watchers most recently noted Kenney's response earlier this week after Flaherty made headlines by suggesting that income splitting — a central 2011 Conservative campaign promise once the budget is balanced — may not be the best tax-saving policy for families.

Kenney on Wednesday initially appeared to disagree. He stressed that income splitting was a platform commitment once the deficit is paid down, which Flaherty anticipates next year.

Kenney's comments Friday were more tempered with an emphasis on caucus unity.

"It was a platform commitment and we absolutely will be delivering tax relief for families once the budget is balanced," he said. "We're hopeful that will be in 2015, and all of our colleagues are committed to that objective. The exact precise design remains to be determined, but that's always the case when you have a general commitment."

Flaherty, a family friend of Ford's, also took a much different tack than Kenney last November on the troubled Toronto mayor's use of alcohol and drugs.

While Flaherty said Ford must make his own decision about his political future with the support of his family, Kenney accused Ford of dishonouring the office of mayor and said he should step down.

And while Kenney has struck a conciliatory note with the provinces and territories on the contentious Canada Job Grant program, Flaherty has sounded more dismissive.

Last Tuesday's budget said Ottawa will deliver the program on its own if it can't reach a deal with the provinces and territories by April 1. The proposed grant initially offered $15,000 for each eligible worker to be divided equally among Ottawa, the provinces and employers.

Amid intense criticism that the program would siphon federal cash from existing provincially run programs for youth, aboriginals and disabled workers, Ottawa sweetened the offer to cover the provincial share.

But the April 1 cutoff caused fresh indignation, especially in Quebec where the Conservative government was accused of encroaching on provincial turf.

Kenney stressed that Ottawa's preference is to reach an agreement in ongoing talks with the provinces and territories.

Flaherty took a less diplomatic approach.

"Job training in Canada is not provincial tax money; it's federal tax money," he said Wednesday. "And it's not for a provincial government to tell the federal government how to spend federal tax money. ... The provincial governments have taxation powers; they can raise their own taxes."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Kenney and Flaherty reportedly clashed privately for years.

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