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Harper tries to assuage concerns over health care, judicial appointments

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, inspect a tray of hot cross buns at a bakery in Mississauga, Ont., on April 23, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stephen Harper is offering soothing reassurances about the style of government he'd run should Canadians grant him a majority next week, championing health care spending as his top priority and beating back the notion he might try to refashion the Supreme Court.

The Conservative Leader, speaking at a campaign stop in Northwestern Ontario, spoke to concerns of an overburdened health care system by saying federal transfers for this file are at the top of his agenda.

"There is no spending priority of government that is more critical than this," Mr. Harper told a crowd in Sault. Ste. Marie on Monday morning.

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"This is an unshakable commitment. Canadians from coast to coast to coast rely on our health care system and rely on governments to keep that health care system strong and that is what we will do."

He's fighting a strengthened NDP in some parts of the country and has been visiting ridings over the last three days where the Tories and the New Democrats are directly battling over seats.

Mr. Harper also offered careful reassurances that he would not be trying to remake the country's highest court despite his history of attacks on the judiciary as too activist and intrusive.

Three of the nine positions on the Supreme Court bench will need to be replaced in the next few years as justices reach retirement age.

The Conservative Leader said he'd follow the same process the Tories have used in two past appointments to the court, neither of which sparked controversy.

"We will pick people, as we've done in the past, people we think are strong independent legal minds," Mr. Harper said.

"We would follow the same process we've been following which is wide ranging consultations [beforehand]with senior members of the public and legal community on the various candidates."

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The Tory Leader, who's served as prime minister for more than five years, suggested he's got less leeway than Canadians might think for appointments. That's in part because each member of the court traditionally comes from a specific region of the country.

"To be frank with you, my experience has been these lists are quite short. For instance, take the appointment I made in Atlantic Canada.

"If you take a look at all of the very senior private law partners, law professors, senior judges, you're maybe talking a pool of three dozen people maximum of whom probably no more than half would be seeking the appointment," Mr. Harper said.

"So you're getting down to some pretty small lists of people very quickly," he said.

"We do some analysis of decisions but overall what you are looking for is record, experience and judgment. A judicial temperament. These people will sit on the bench a long time. So we will choose very carefully."

He vowed as in the past to bring Supreme Court picks before MPs so they could face a screening.

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"We will have these people ... sit before a Parliamentary committee and answer some questions about themselves and their philosophy."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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