On the Harper tour: Everybody behave

Amid further questions about the Mike Duffy trial, the day after an explosive court session, a delicate detente holds between Harper supporters and the press

Conservative leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in London, Ontario, on Wednesday, August 19, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Conservative leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in London, Ontario, on Wednesday, August 19, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The Conservative supporters inside the Best Western Plus Lamplighter Inn in London, Ont., were told to be on their best behaviour. Stephen Harper was about to sit down for a friendly one-on-one chat about taxes and red tape with Dan Kelly, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), before opening up questions to journalists, who had no interest in talking about taxes and red tape, but were instead champing at the bit to turn to the topic of the Mike Duffy trial that had just roped in Harper’s chief of staff Ray Novak.

Related: Nick Köhler on an explosive day at the Duffy trial

The Conservatives had no intention of seeing a repeat on the news a day earlier at a campaign event in Mississauga, Ont., when one man started heckling journalists who asked about the Duffy trial. The heckler, an elderly gentlemen wearing a Doug Ford badge, stood in front of the cameras, calling Duffy “a zero” and the journalist a “lying piece of s–t.” The video went viral and the man instantly became a campaign star.

“There was a [Conservative staffer] who came up and said, ‘We want you to respect the role of the media,’ ” says Norm Corrin, a retiree who says he volunteers for the London-Fanshawe candidate Suzanna Dieleman. “I think it’s because of this guy jumping up last night.”

Mission not quite accomplished.

    When Harper opened up to media questions, four journalists (three in English, one in French) asked Harper about Novak and his role in the $90,000 given to Duffy. A courtroom in Ottawa recently heard that Novak was in the room with Nigel Wright, who was telling the Prime Minister’s lawyer Ben Perrin about cutting Duffy the $90,000 cheque. “It gets Novak about as close as you can possibly get to an alleged bribe without actually paying it yourself,” Maclean’s court reporter Nick Köhler wrote yesterday. In London, one by one, Harper repeated that he won’t comment on what’s before the courts, adding that it is Duffy and Wright who are the two responsible in the scandal. “They’ve been held accountable,” Harper said. “That’s my judgment in how this matter should be handled.”

    But when a fourth journalist stepped in front of the mic and asked Harper about the Duffy affair and Ray Novak’s current standing within the PMO, some Tory supporters scoffed aloud, interrupting the journalist mid-question, only to remember the earlier request for politeness. When Harper answered, again, that the matter was before the courts, the audience of about 100 guests (many of whom were invited to this event a week ago) laughed and erupted in applause.

    As Harper walked off the stage to the song Better Now by Collective Soul, shaking hands with those in attendance, even some Conservative supporters felt they could collectively act, well, better now. “I felt very bad for the journalist, because now, she feels like she’s in a hostile environment,” Corrin says. “She should be free to ask a question.” But he says the continuous questioning about Duffy at campaign events is tiring for Harper supporters. “I think anybody with a Conservative bias just thinks it’s petty,” Corrin adds. “You’re not going to get a different answer [from Harper], so why ask it?”

    For Conservative supporters, there are more pressing issues to focus on: taxes, national security and the budget. “To keep hammering the same question [about the Duffy scandal] three or four times is ludicrous,” says Doug Daye, a 69-year-old Harper supporter in attendance. Regarding the loud scoffing from audience members toward the journalist, he says, “I think it was a case of ‘get off this and get on to something else.’ ”

    Related: Our primers on the 12 issues that will dominate the election

    During the London campaign event, Harper gamely tried to stay on the message of the economy, talking about how his government reduced red tape for small businesses, how temporary foreign workers need to be temporary, and how Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair would raise taxes. The crowd applauded exuberantly with every answer.

    Nevertheless, as he tours the country, seeking re-election in October, one can be sure his staffers will be reminding audience members to smile and be nice for the cameras.

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