On the road -- the August place to be

Harper's tour of the North, Ontario and the Maritimes proves again that all politics is local

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The advantages of incumbency are nowhere more apparent than Stephen Harper's summer tour, which has kicked into high gear with a week-long northern swing intended to promote Arctic sovereignty.

On Monday, a Canadian Forces Airbus flew him to Churchill, Man., where he made a government announcement. By week's end, Harper will have visited all three northern territories on what his office calls "his fifth annual northern tour." There will be no shortage of visuals -today at Resolute, in Nunavut, the Canadian Forces will put on a training exercise along with ships from the U.S. and Danish navies. You want a great photo op? The navy can do that.

Arctic sovereignty is a powerfully resonant theme, the components of which include territorial sovereignty, sustainable development of the region's vast resources, and a concern for the shrinking polar ice cap. If the Northwest Passage is going to be open water within a decade, Canada needs to reinforce the case that these are our waters. Deep-water drilling in the Arctic isn't for tomorrow, but when the day comes, any oil company applying for licences will need relief wells as part of its operating plan.

Harper's northern tour caps off a late-starting three week summer swing that began on the West Coast, took him through area code 905-land in suburban Toronto last week, and then Down East for three days in the Maritimes.

All along the way, he's been having photo-ops in venues that are beneficiaries of federal largesse. In Vancouver, he visited the aquarium, upgraded with infrastructure money, and had his picture taken with a beluga whale. In Cranbrook, B.C., he announced improvements to the airport to which flights are diverted when Vancouver is fogged in. In Mississauga last week, he reminded voters of government funding for a bus transportation corridor to Toronto. He went to a furniture factory, where workers had participated in job sharing in the recession. Then he attended a Tory golf tournament in Ajax, where the Conservatives hope Chris Alexander, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, can win a seat from the Liberals. In Barrie, he dropped a puck at a hockey game for a charitable event.

This is a reminder that all politics is local. Not one of these events was in downtown Toronto, where the Conservatives have no expectations of winning anything in the 416 area code south of Highway 401. But the suburban 905 belt, from Mississauga to Oshawa, is key to any Conservative prospects of picking up seats in what is known as vote-rich Ontario (as in oil-rich Texas).

As for Harper's Maritime swing, there is no downside in Nova Scotia to the PM having his picture taken in front of the Bluenose II, refitted with federal funds. Nor are there votes to be lost in visiting the Michelin tire factory, which has an iconic stature as one of the first multinationals to set up shop there.

Similarly, in New Brunswick, there was nothing to be lost for Harper in visiting the King's Landing historic theme park near Fredericton, to say nothing of his announcement of a federal pay centre in Miramichi. What culture of dependency? That was then, this is now. All is forgiven. Besides, Harper's dad was from New Brunswick.

In Prince Edward Island, Harper attended a big summer parade in Charlottetown and did a photo-op at a wind farm. Did someone mention infrastructure funding, as part of Canada's Economic Action Plan? While all these events were of a regional character, they also played into Harper's overarching message of staying the course for economic recovery.

His own polling, known as "internals", tells him the same thing at he could find out down at Tim Horton's -voters are a lot more concerned about the economy than they are about census forms.

Harper lost the better part of a month this summer by going off the air for three weeks. He was certainly entitled to family time at Harrington Lake after hosting the G8 and G20, and accompanying the queen on most of her Canadian tour. But when the prime minister is off the radar for that long, and the government has no other message, the vacuum can be filled by the opposition, and the agenda can be hijacked by the media and other third parties.

Case in point, Michael Ignatieff has been on his own tour, the Liberal Express, for the last six weeks, and it's been a very good investment of his time. He's been meeting the Liberal rank and file, who didn't know him any better than other Canadians, his entourage is coming together as a team, he's been getting good regional coverage and Ignatieff himself has been finding his voice.

That can only help him, going down the road.

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