As he navigated the windswept tundra for the cameras, Stephen Harper had more on his mind than wrapping himself in the flag.
An election is still two years away, but the Conservative Prime Minister began his annual trip to the North by road-testing political messages that will be used in the countdown to the next federal ballot.
Mr. Harper is overhauling his government, trying to put a fresh coat of paint on it now that the Tories are into their eighth year of power. So far, he has shuffled his cabinet and made changes to the Prime Minister’s Office; he will prorogue Parliament and reboot his agenda with a Throne Speech in the fall.
But first, the party needs to rebuild relations with rank-and-file Conservatives who are disenchanted by the Senate expenses scandal, which cost Mr. Harper his chief of staff and hurt the party’s credibility as good stewards of public money. These are the workers who put up signs, canvass support and get out the vote in 2015. Without them, the Tories are lost.
Even staunch Conservative MPs are concerned the government does not have signature accomplishments to show for the hard-fought majority it won two years ago.
Mr. Harper used an Aug. 18 address to a Yukon Conservative audience to fine-tune a narrative aimed at reassuring fellow partisans the Tories have not lost their way.
“One of the unwritten stories over the past couple of years is how much we’ve been able to get through Parliament,” Mr. Harper told the Whitehorse crowd, an attempt to counter attitudes that governments do not keep their word.
“In the 2011 election, the Conservative Party made more than 100 specific pledges. We have now delivered on 84 of them,” he said. “And we’re working on the rest.”
A Conservative Party-funded website created to document the tour amplified the message this week, spelling it out in a headline: “Promise made, promise kept.”
In the North, some of those promises have been scaled back. The Arctic is not yet the legacy project that Mr. Harper would prefer. He has yet to deliver a big-ticket item for the region in the way that, for instance, Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker did. Mr. Diefenbaker ensured construction of the Dempster Highway, the 700-kilometre lifeline between the Klondike in Yukon and Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.
The challenge for Mr. Harper is that all of his big Northern deliverables – such as Arctic patrol vessels – face lengthy construction schedules after years of delay.
Now, he is more focused on skills-training cash for aboriginals; expanding the part-time military, the Canadian Rangers, by 1,000 soldiers; and offering money to promote wind power at a mining operation.
With about 100,000 people in the three territories he visits each August, there are few votes to be had. But championing Arctic sovereignty and strengthening the Northern economy is a Conservative bid to redefine the icons of patriotism in Canada – a shift from the Liberal-era talismans of health care, the Charter of Rights and peacekeeping.
Past visits have been prologue to a flurry of action. In 2008, most memorably, Mr. Harper returned from the North to trigger a federal election that won him a stronger plurality in the Commons.
But as he rebrands himself, the Prime Minister shows signs of retreating to the familiar. He lost Nigel Wright, a solid bridge to Bay Street, to the Senate scandal, and he is relying on Ray Novak, an aide for more than a decade, to fill the gap. Harper loyalist Jenni Byrne, a former PMO staffer famous for her emphasis on message control, is also expected to rejoin the Prime Minister’s Office.
The overriding political imperative in Ottawa will remain balancing the budget, though. The Conservatives need to run a surplus by 2015 to finance income tax breaks they promised in 2011 to deliver when Ottawa’s books return to black. Tory strategists expect the government will announce the cuts when it returns to surplus, meaning that any rival party’s political promises would require cancelling these Conservative tax breaks.
During this year’s Northern trip, Mr. Harper was guarded about his plans for the fall, declining to go much beyond the subject at hand. He showed little enthusiasm for discussing the Senate, repeating the same old lines, for the most part. A revelation that he will hold off on more appointments was limited to a few sentences.
Conservative insiders , however, say the trip has come to serve more than just partisan purposes. The Prime Minster, an introvert, finds the trip to the remotest region of Canada a useful way to gird himself for the barrage in Parliament each fall. “It definitely clears his head,” one Conservative said. “He’s a solitary person. And this is a solitary place.”