Column: Prime minister has political winds at his back

Harper 02.JPGThe House of Commons may have provided a scenic backdrop, but for Stephen Harper, all the world – and the 905 – was a stage during the parliamentary sitting which wrapped up this week.

Buffeted more by events outside the Canadian political realm than within, most of the prevailing winds were blowing the prime minister’s way.

It was a session marked by a war debate, an attack on Parliament, sexual harassment and Harper’s world travels and Ontario campaign-style stops.

But with the wind in his sails, he then rode into some tough headwinds in plummeting oil prices, frightening headlines about Canadian homes overvalued by as much as 30 per cent, a public battle with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and Julian Fantino, a man whose electoral value in that key 905 belt cannot possibly overcome his liabilities in the sensitive veterans affairs portfolio.

The actual debate in the Commons was often a mere background chorus to the real stage.

By committing Canadian air power to northern Iraq for a six-month mission, Harper gained political points, particularly when weighed against the uneven performance on the same issue by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

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Then, in the days after that commitment, outside forces intervened in the form of a gunman who killed a young soldier at the country’s war memorial before storming the House of Commons, terrorizing all who worked there.

Days earlier, another Canadian soldier had been murdered, this time in Quebec.

This was a time for Harper to show leadership and resolve and he did. He showed a rare empathetic side, pledging (short-term) unity with his adversaries and support for his decision on the Islamic State campaign grew.

Then came a national debate over sexual harassment, one that first played out in the cultural community as the CBC turned on itself in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi affair. Daily stories of the CBC gnawing on its own leg are always a popular show for Harper and his base.

When the harassment story hit Parliament Hill, Harper got a pass.

Instead, the two men vying to emerge as his primary opponent next year, Trudeau and Tom Mulcair, were driven badly off course by the suspension of two Liberal MPs, then the sniping from the bunkers of the two opposition parties, then the inaction that dragged the story out for weeks, then a series of media interviews given by one of the NDP MPs who had made the initial accusations.

As that saga played out, Harper hit the road, stopping at the United Nations, visiting China, Australia, New Zealand and Senegal. In Australia, he won positive coverage for a confrontation with Vladimir Putin and in Senegal, he helped win the job of secretary-general of la Francophonie for MichaÎlle Jean.

Trips closer to home were more important to the prime minister and it often appeared he and his key ministers were running satellite offices in the 905 and southern Ontario.

If you wanted to find the prime minister Thursday, you looked to a Canadian Tire in Mississauga.

That marked his 12th public event in the 905/Toronto/Hamilton area since Labour Day, plus a visit to Sault Ste. Marie.

He has been to a fundraiser at the Woodbine Banquet Hall, toured IBM in Markham, dropped by a National Research Council lab in London, announced tax cuts at the Vaughan Community Centre, received a Rotary Club award in Toronto, warned about a new gun registry in Sault Ste. Marie, announced a child fitness tax credit in Whitby, did a board of trade “roundtable” in Brampton, made a naval announcement in Hamilton, dropped by the Forty Creek Distiller in Grimsby, visited an Orthodox Cathedral in Markham (again) and met the Aga Khan in Toronto.

That travel itinerary should leave no doubt where the 2015 election will be fought.

As he breaks for Christmas, Harper would know better than anyone that good fortune smiled on him during this session, but good fortune is not a political strategy.

Getting past the Fantino crisis is within his control. Dealing with Wynne will have to be a priority, or his Ontario efforts could go for naught.

But sliding oil prices and falling house values cloud his election year prospects.

As Shakespeare told us about the stage, “All the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

Harper’s 2015 part is still very much unsettled and as we have just learned, events off the parliamentary stage will largely define that role.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

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