OTTAWA — When he’s talking about the federal election campaign, Stephen Harper prefers to talk about two — and only two — themes: the economy and national security.
When he’s forced to talk about the Senate scandal and the courtroom drama unfolding in Ottawa, he prefers to talk about two — and only two — people: Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright.
And so it was on Monday as the prime minister faced another short but sharp burst of media questions about the Duffy trial and the fact that most of Harper’s inner circle had been aware of a 2013 scheme to cover the senator’s disputed expenses.
That inner circle included Ray Novak, the man who replaced Wright as chief of staff after the latter lieutenant left the Prime Minister’s Office over his $90,000 personal payment on Duffy’s behalf.
When asked why he has so far refused to “clean house,” Harper disputed his inquisitor’s “particular rendition of the facts” and insisted the scandal extends only to the two principal players, and no further.
“What I know is this. Mr. Duffy should have repaid his expenses. He did not. He did not because Mr. Wright paid them for him,” Harper said.
“These are the two individuals responsible, and they are being held accountable and that is what is appropriate.”
Harper staged his morning ‘message event’ during a stop in Fredericton, N.B., where he promised to add 6,000 people to bolster the reserve ranks of the Canadian Forces reserves.
He said the measure will cost $163 million over three years and $63.4 million a year going forward once the overall target of 30,000 personnel is reached.
“What’s important for Canadians looking forward is going to be the two issues of this campaign; the economy of our country and our future prospects in the security of our country,” Harper said.
“Those are the two issues and this Conservative party is the only government that has answers.”
But if Harper didn’t want to discuss the Duffy details, his campaign rivals were more than happy to fill the void.
During a campaign event in Niagara Falls, Ont., NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused the prime minister of misleading Canadians about how his office dealt with the disgraced senator’s questioned expenses.
“Their prime minister has not been forthcoming with them,” Mulcair said.
“He’s been saying one thing and its opposite, and expecting people to believe (that) both can be true strains credibility.”
Mulcair used tourist-friendly Niagara Falls to roll out a promise of $30 million over three years to help Destination Canada attract more American visitors. He said the Conservatives have cut the Crown corporation’s budget even as tourist numbers have fallen.
In Ajax, Ontario, Trudeau repeated the Liberal promise to deliver a tax break for the middle class, saying those earning between $44,700 and $89,401 a year will see their tax rate fall to 20.5 per cent.
And he also repeated another promise: that the Liberals would never enter into a coalition agreement with the New Democrats should no one hold a majority of the seats in the House of Commons after Oct. 19.
“I don’t believe in backroom deals or arrangements amongst leaders,” Trudeau said.
“I believe that Canadians should have the full range of choices so that they can pick the team with the better plan.”
Trudeau said the NDP would also hike taxes on corporations, stalling economic growth, but would not have the courage to increase taxes on high income earners to help fund a tax cut for the middle class.
“You deserve a plan that offers real growth for the middle class — not just a different government, but a better one,” he said.
“We will stop giving government cheques to wealthy families so we can give more to the middle class and lower-income families.”
A Liberal government would also retool Canada’s child-benefit system to provide more to those families that most need the help, he added.