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Harper scraps Arctic trip, expected to start election campaign early

Prime Minister Stephen Harper wears the Canadian Ranger sweater after he was bestowed honorary Canadian Ranger status in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. He has cancelled this year's trip to Canada's north.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stephen Harper has ditched plans for his annual visit to northern Canada and is expected to begin more frequently touring the country next month as the unofficial Conservative election campaign switches into high gear starting with the first party leaders' debate in early August.

Mr. Harper has toured the North, including the High Arctic, each summer since taking office as part of his effort to style himself a defender of Canadian sovereignty. Aides say it's one trip he genuinely enjoys and the effort, which includes cash for northern projects, is part of what he considers a legacy item.

Dates for this year's trip had changed a number of times but officials say there's no time this year with an election fast approaching.

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The election is set for Oct. 19, but the date that Parliament is dissolved and the real campaign begins is still a closely held secret.

Ottawa has been rife with speculation for weeks of an early writ drop in August. That would mean a longer, more costly election for parties, and the Conservatives, with their massive war chest, are best positioned to afford this.

But Mr. Harper would face daily questions about the Mike Duffy scandal when the senator's trial resumes Aug. 11 and former Prime Minister's Office chief of staff Nigel Wright takes the stand.

The Aug. 6 debate, hosted by Maclean's magazine in Toronto, will mark the first time Mr. Harper, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau square off against each other in this manner.

These events – a contest to draw the attention of voters – are normally held during election campaigns and the first one will set a tone for the weeks that follow, regardless of when the writ is dropped.

The Conservatives, who will be fighting their re-election campaign on two planks, the economy and security, have governed as if in perpetual campaign mode, with a high degree of partisanship. Nevertheless, the Tories say, Canadians can expect the tone of the ruling Conservatives to grow even more political.

"We're evolving from general government messaging to campaign messaging," one Conservative official said.

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Regardless of when the official campaign begins, the official said, "It's increasingly looking like all parties will be on tour as of the leaders' debates in August."

The Conservative Party has announced plans to participate in five pre-election debates, including one organized by The Globe and Mail in Calgary. The party has refused to participate in the traditional leaders' debates run by a consortium of broadcasters, citing the "diversity and innovation" of other debate sponsors.

A senior Conservative cabinet member said Mr. Harper will begin touring Canada regularly at the beginning of August and an election will officially commence near the end of that month or in early September. "I don't think voters will be paying attention until Labour Day," the minister said.

Until then, the Conservative cabinet will alternate between roles as government ministers and partisans, making announcements and holding barbecues and fundraisers to help candidates and rally the party faithful.

Mr. Harper, a self-styled hawk on security and defence, will attend the appointment of Canada's new top soldier Friday when Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance is promoted to General and takes over from Tom Lawson as Chief of the Defence Staff for the Canadian military.

The government will try to keep security on voters' minds when it hosts an anti-terror conference of allies at the end of July in Quebec City. The primary focus will be the war against Islamic State militants in the Middle East. Iraq's Foreign Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is among those planning to attend.

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In the meantime, the on-air war for voter hearts and minds is intensifying, with all parties placing broadcast ads to seed the ground for the election to come.

The governing Conservatives find themselves in the crosshairs of public-sector unions for a series of austerity budgets that shrank government operations in the name of fighting the deficit. The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents more than 170,000 civil servants across the country, announced this week it plans to spend $2.7-million running an anti-Conservative ad campaign under the theme of "Stop the Cuts."

Those Tories within the party who advocate for an early start to the official election campaign argue it would help curb third-party advertising by unions that could turn Canadians against Mr. Harper's Conservatives. The limit on third-party advertising campaigns in the 2011 election was $188,250 nationally, with a maximum of $3,765 an electoral district.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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