Stephen Harper cast his eyes to the next election this week, and they fell on Ontario.
It was no whim that led him to stop for a meeting with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne before the world junior hockey final in Toronto on Monday. This was Mr. Harper's discipline: He set aside the spat that led him to snub Ms. Wynne for months, and did what was needed to court Ontario's golden votes.
He'd already moved to mend another lingering problem earlier that day, cutting Julian Fantino from the Veterans Affairs portfolio – but he kept the prominent former police chief in cabinet so he wouldn't lose a political asset in Toronto's suburbs, and the man who wrested the riding of Vaughan from the Liberals.
And to fill Veterans Affairs, Mr. Harper added another Southern Ontario MP to cabinet, Durham's Erin O'Toole – his 16th Ontario minister.
This was a Prime Minister placing his pieces where the game will be. There are clichés about vote-rich Ontario, but it's an electoral imperative now. New Democrats and Liberals may battle over swaths of Quebec. But from the PM's perspective, most swing seats where he'll win or lose in October are concentrated in Toronto suburbs and towns just outside them, a strip of perhaps 40 ridings.
"Virtually every one of them went Tory federally. And virtually every single one of them went Liberal in the last provincial election," said Greg Lyle, a pollster and political strategist with Innovative Research. "Being at war with Kathleen Wynne, who won all those seats, is probably not the smartest thing."
In December, Mr. Harper's staff recalled with irritation that Ms. Wynne claimed the PM "smirked" when she raised pensions at their last meeting. But while Mr. Harper doesn't bend easily, he adapts to his interests. If he can court China's leaders for the economy, he can sit with Ms. Wynne for an election.
PMO staff called the Premier's aides eight days ago to set up Monday's meeting. It wasn't because Mr. Harper had new business. Ms. Wynne led the agenda in the discussions, said a provincial source, while Mr. Harper kept his cards close to his vest. But he gave her a hearing. And Ms. Wynne emerged to call him "constructive."
That's a win for Mr. Harper, but the end of the spat might also help clear a hurdle for another kind of co-operation: funding announcements for building projects. Many are funded with federal-provincial infrastructure programs, but the pace of Ontario announcements has been relatively slow – each government blaming the other. Mr. Harper will want to make a string of announcements of Ontario projects this election year.
That's standard politicking, and also helps him battle with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who signalled he'll emphasize infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy. And infrastructure projects can address a burning local concern – traffic.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, MP for Halton, west of Toronto, held prebudget consultations in fast-growing Milton, Ont., on Tuesday, and said 45 minutes of the two-hour session were about transportation: traffic, trains and travel time. Milton sells itself as a logistics centre, and logjams hurt.
There are jams on Highway 401, but more GO trains aren't feasible because track time is reserved for freight. Ms. Raitt is seeking solutions, and will take infrastructure requests to Finance Minister Joe Oliver and the PM. "We're hitting that tipping point in terms of capacity," she said.
But generally, Ms. Raitt said, there's "positivity," not nervousness, about the economy. People feel their finances are tight, but not threatened. They're eager for a break; most don't know details of the Tories' promised family tax cuts yet, she conceded, but they're keen.
And Milton is like many communities in swing ridings the Tories must target – not urban centres like Hamilton, where political battles tend to be between the NDP and Liberals, but growing, reasonably affluent, ethnically diverse bedroom communities. "They're striving communities," Mr. Lyle said. "These are people living the Canadian dream, but it's harder than they thought."
Mr. Harper expanded his government's presence in those places. With Mr. O'Toole, he now has seven ministers from that strip of swing ridings. He made his big fall political announcement, tax breaks for parents, in Mr. Fantino's riding of Vaughan.
And although he might have smarted at Mr. Fantino's missteps with veterans, he wasn't going to toss him aside: He's a law-and-order icon popular in the suburbs and the traditionally Liberal Italian-Canadian community, and he won Vaughan. Mr. Harper knows power requires discipline, and that means keeping his eyes fixed on Ontario.