OTTAWA — Who loves ya, baby?
Stephen Harper, that’s who.
Harper celebrated his fifth anniversary as prime minister Sunday suggesting no one loves Canada more than his Conservative government.
In a speech to about 600 party faithful, Harper extolled his government’s record of achievement, asserting that Canada is more united, stronger, safer and more prosperous after five years of minority Conservative rule.
But he also spent considerable time musing about patriotism.
And although he never directly mentioned any opposition leader or party by name, the message seemed aimed at Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader derided by Tories as “just visiting” Canada after working abroad for most of his adult life.
“For Conservatives, (governing) is about public service and public service means sacrifice,” Harper said.
“So why do we do it? … We are here because we love Canada … Canada is and always has been our country.”
By contrast, Harper implied the previous Liberal government was driven by self-interest and a sense of entitlement.
His remarks subtly underscored the latest Tory attack ads, which dredge up past remarks by Ignatieff referring to himself as an American, belittling Canada’s peacekeeping reputation and describing the Maple Leaf flag as “a passing imitation of a beer label.”
The television ads, launched last week, conclude with the tag line: “Ignatieff. He didn’t come back for you.”
In contrast to Ignatieff’s alleged elitism and detachment from Canada, Harper spoke of his travels across the country, meeting with average folks like truck drivers and bank tellers — “the quiet people” who make the country tick.
“These people love Canada, they love it deeply,” Harper said.
“And whoever has the honour to lead them must care about them and must love Canada as much as they do.”
Harper has often been accused of being hyper-partisan, a perception exacerbated by aggressive Tory attack ads.
But even though an election could be triggered over the federal budget as early as next month, Sunday’s event seemed deliberately stripped of all signs of overt partisanship.
There was nary a sign of the Conservative party logo while the word Canada was emblazoned on the speaker’s podium and on two huge video screens flanking it.
An enormous Maple Leaf flag served as the backdrop to Harper’s podium.
Party faithful in the audience waved tiny Canadian flags, not Tory banners.
But in a sign that the anniversary may yet be put to partisan use in another spate of TV ads, the entire event was filmed by a sophisticated camera attached to a crane, which swooped around room like a big black bird, variously zooming in on Harper and flag-waving members of the audience.
The operator said the leased apparatus costs a cool $2,000 a day.
Harper used the anniversary celebration to recount the highlights of his minority government.
He also countered Ignatieff’s accusation that Tory priorities — prisons, planes and corporate tax cuts — aren’t shared by average Canadians.
“Five years ago today …. Canadians gave our party a mandate to shake up Ottawa,” he said.
“We have been faithful. We have kept that trust. And we have delivered.”
He said the Tories will continue their tough-on-crime agenda, putting “the bad buys out of circulation for a while” even it means increased prison costs.
“Does it cost money? Yes. Is it worth it? Just ask a victim.”
Harper also defended his government’s decision to purchase $16 billion worth of stealth fighter jets.
“No matter how some will downplay the need to equip the military, we know from experience that governments of all stripes will send them into a war theatre at the drop of a hat,” he said.
“And that is why we will ensure that our men and women in uniform … have what they need to do their jobs as well and as safely as possible.”
Under his government’s management, Harper boasted Canada’s economy bounced back the fastest among industrialized countries from the 2008 global recession.
He warned against changing course in the midst of the “fragile” recovery, urging Canadians to say ’no’ to rolling back corporate tax cuts or investing in new programs, as the Liberals are proposing.
“What is important now, what is absolutely crucial is that we do not tamper with the policies that are working.”
Harper also acknowledged some of his pet projects have been stymied by the minority Parliament. But he vowed that one day there will be an elected Senate and the elimination of the “wasteful” long-gun registry.