Campaign Notebook: Inside Harper’s Canadian Election Bubble

Stephen Harper was late, but the crowd waited. After all, it was a friendly room of Conservative Party loyalists, staff, lawmakers and security -- a quasi-private campaign event at Deer Creek, a Toronto-area golf course.

“Please, everyone have a seat,” the Canadian Prime Minister said after taking the stage more than an hour late on the second day of the campaign. “We’re going to be here awhile.”

He isn’t kidding. Harper has kicked off Canada’s longest election contest since 1872 ahead of the Oct. 19 vote -- 11 weeks, more than double the usual five weeks. That’s meant leaders are pacing themselves.

Leading up to the first debate Thursday, Harper held eight events almost entirely closed off to the public, including at Deer Creek. His rivals -- New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau of the Liberals -- have done only a handful of events, and didn’t begin formal leader tours right away.

The media are pacing themselves too. Five news organizations traveled with his campaign this week, including Bloomberg -- a scant total for the incumbent head of a Group of Seven country.

Side-Stepping Protests

In the first week of the campaign, Harper has come across undecided voters only rarely.

Protesters greeting him outside an event in Kingston, Ontario show why. They chanted: “Nah nah, hey hey, kiss him goodbye,” holding “Stop Harper” signs.

Not to be outdone, the Harper camp drowned them out by blaring “Burn It To The Ground,” by Canadian rock band Nickelback.

‘Nothing’ Counts

Harper has been warning about his political rivals and what they would do for the economy. “Nothing!” one loyalist shouted at the golf-course event.

In a rare moment of ad-libbing during an otherwise tightly scripted campaign, Harper responded: “Oh, they’re going to do worse than nothing. If they do nothing, we’d be pretty happy with it.”

Picking Fights

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, the Liberal head of Canada’s most populous province, is campaigning against Harper at a time when most other premiers are staying out of the federal election.

The two have traded barbs, in particular over the Harper government’s refusal to help Ontario introduce a mandatory provincial pension plan. “Kathleen Wynne is mad that I won’t help her do that and Justin Trudeau will. And you’re bloody right,” Harper said.

A day later, he was asked about Wynne again, and recalled advice he got when he became prime minister. “They said, ’you will have your best relations with the premiers who are doing a good job in their own jurisdiction,’” Harper said, to laughter and applause from the Conservative crowd. “And I think I won’t say more than that.”

Harper also took aim at Alberta’s NDP Premier, Rachel Notley, and federal New Democrat lawmakers, who he called ineffective. Notley rejected the criticism and pledged to work together with whichever party wins the federal election.

Counting Questions

How many questions is too many?

Harper took five each on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before shutting his campaign down for debate preparations. The NDP’s Mulcair took none on the first day, drawing criticism from the press and a rebuke from his rival Trudeau.

“Any other questions?” the Liberal leader asked reporters at Sunday’s campaign launch in Vancouver. “Unlike the other guys, I tend to take a lot of questions.”

Leaderless Ride

Mulcair launched his leaders’ tour Friday in Toronto, the morning after the inaugural two-hour debate, hosting an event with fellow candidates before posing for photographs boarding a coach wrapped in NDP orange and bearing his face.

After cameras left, he got off the bus and into other vehicles for the tour -- leaving media and some staff to use the vehicle.

Key Witness

One date circled on every leader’s calendar next week is Aug. 12, when Harper’s former Chief of Staff Nigel Wright testifies at the criminal trial of former Conservative senator Mike Duffy, who is accused of fraud and bribery.

Wright is implicated because he gave Duffy a personal check for C$90,000 ($68,400) to repay disputed expense claims, raising questions of what the prime minister knew and when he knew it.