Changing the focus

Pay no attention to that little man in the courtroom. The Conservative government may be stealing furtive glances over its shoulder at the downtown Ottawa courthouse, but it is mainly going about its business, flexing the muscle of incumbency. It is shoring up its vulnerabilities in an election year while much of the political class — and a good chunk of the population — is talking about Mike Duffy.

Pay no attention to that little man in the courtroom.

The Conservative government may be stealing furtive glances over its shoulder at the downtown Ottawa courthouse, but it is mainly going about its business, flexing the muscle of incumbency.

It is shoring up its vulnerabilities in an election year while much of the political class — and a good chunk of the population — is talking about Mike Duffy.

It’s been relatively easy for the first days of the suspended senator’s criminal trial, but it will become progressively more difficult as it winds its way into June and moves into more perilous waters for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

For now, the government is adopting a “What, me worry?” strategy while it has that opening.

It is firming up support in key constituencies, bringing down the temperature on volatile files and, most importantly, traversing the country sprinkling previously announced money, events that receive no national attention but provide valuable ammunition for Conservative candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, when knocking on local doors in search of votes.

Shoring up support

Tuesday’s announcement of up to 200 Canadian military trainers heading to Ukraine will be a domestic winner for the prime minister.

The Canadians will be far from military action and the Ukrainian diaspora in this country, an important voting bloc, will applaud Harper for putting his money where his mouth is in support of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Similarly, the state visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will give Harper a chance to shine with an Indian diaspora.

More than a million Canadians trace their ancestry to India and they are concentrated in key 905 and Lower Mainland ridings in British Columbia.

Modi gets a Vancouver state dinner with Harper and an official red carpet welcome in Parliament.

Bringing down the temperature

This remains a work in progress but the early returns are good.

The new veterans affairs minister, Erin O’Toole, has announced a series of changes on a file the government had mangled, most recently the hiring of 100 more case workers who are eventually expected to improve front line services. He has announced grants for those caring for injured veterans, increased disability allowances for permanently injured veterans and extended benefits to reservists.

He has also eliminated the ludicrous requirement for veterans to confirm lost limbs to continue their benefits.

This may not placate all critics. It can rightly be argued it took a looming election for a government to act as it always should have.

But it has had one undeniably positive effect — when was the last time you heard from lightning rod Julian Fantino?

The government has also cooled the thermometer on the question of missing and murdered aboriginal women. Calls for an inquiry persist but a national roundtable and promise of another meeting have nudged the issue off the front burner.

Sprinkling money around the country

Tuesday was Christmas from Vancouver Island to Prince Edward Island.

Rare was the cabinet minister who wasn’t announcing something, ranging from $16 million pledged for Canadian Sports Centres, in ceremonies at sports facilities in Halifax, Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg, to $10.8 million for research chairs, announced at Hamilton’s McMaster University, to almost $3 million to upgrade the regional airport in Victoriaville, Que.

There was money for seniors in Ajax, for access to addiction programs for on-reserve First Nations, announced in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., help for the fish industry announced in Vancouver, help for farmers in Saskatoon and help for manufacturers of Asian-style noodles in Winnipeg.

There was a little over $9,000 to upgrade snowmobile trails in Armagh, Que., $1.8 million to fight crime in Scarborough, Ont., $1.18 million to support francophone entrepreneurs announced in Alfred, Ont., and $2,000 to support the Willow Creek Cowboy Poetry and Music Society in Staveley, Alta.

There were wharves being fixed in Pointe-Sapin, N.B., and Ladner, B.C.

This was all previously earmarked money, but Conservatives believe they will be able to deliver a good news pre-election budget next week. To be sure, they will spend $7.5 million of your money to invade your television or streaming device to tell you what a crackerjack budget that was.

Harper will not be able to escape the drip, drip, drip of the Duffy trial. As we head toward the summer, the drip might become a flood.

The trial is beyond government control and in the hands of a scorned senator and a deft defence counsel.

But in the meantime, Conservatives have an election to win and to get there they will see no Duffy, hear no Duffy.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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