On Monday, the minister of tourism, Melanie Joly, travelled from her riding in Montreal to Salmon River, N.B., in the riding of Fundy Royal, where she and the local MP, Liberal Alaina Lockhart, announced $1.7 million in federal funding for tourism projects, some of which were in Lockhart’s riding but most of which were not.
And while there, Joly praised Lockhart for her work, a not-so-subtle pitch to the usually Conservative-minded voters of southwest New Brunswick that they ought to let lightning strike twice and give Lockhart a repeat in this fall’s general election of the surprise win she had in 2015.
Because before 2015, voters in this part of New Brunswick had elected a Liberal just once before, in 1993. Other than those two occasions, it’s been one Conservative after another going back to 1917. Lockhart will need all the help she can get to prevent Fundy Royal from snapping back to form and so a visit by a minister with some money to hand out and nice words to say cannot but help.
But Joly was not yet done handing out cheques and saying nice things about the work her government — the Trudeau Liberal government — has been doing for voters in parts of Atlantic Canada that tend to lean to the right.
Joly went from Salmon River to Advocate Harbour, N.S., which is at the Bay of Fundy tip of the riding of Cumberland-Colchester. The MP in that riding, Liberal Bill Casey, is retiring. For a few decades now, Casey has been one of the most popular politicians of this region, running and winning as a Mulroney Progressive Conservative, as a Harper Conservative, as an independent and most recently as a Trudeau Liberal.
Most of the time, people in this northwest corner of the province were voting for Casey himself.
Without Casey on the ballot, this riding tends to lean to the right and, indeed, that’s what Conservative candidate Scott Armstrong is counting on. Armstrong, once Casey’s campaign manager, was the riding’s MP from 2009, when Casey “retired” from politics, to 2015, when Casey “unretired” and unseated Armstrong in that year’s general election.
The Liberals, in any event, want to prevent Armstrong’s return to the House of Commons, so some federal cash delivered by a minister with some good words about Liberal work in the region can only help. Joly repeated the Advocate Harbour performance Tuesday morning in the riding’s major city, Truro, with another cheque and more nice words.
But there was yet more for Joly to do on her tour of Atlantic Canada ridings where Liberals need a little help this fall. Her final stop was in Wolfville, the capital of the riding of Kings-Hants, where the MP for the longest time was the popular Scott Brison. Brison, like Casey, could win no matter which party he was running for. But he’s out of the mix now and the Conservatives are hungrily eyeing a seat they think is filled with small-c conservative voters.
Though there seemed to be an obvious political pattern to Joly’s choice of Atlantic Canada tour stops this week, the Liberal Party did not pay for her travel. The taxpayer did.
And indeed, that’s what taxpayers do every summer, for Liberal governments or Conservative governments. They pay for ministers to crisscross the country handing out cheques, talking up the virtue of government programs, cutting ribbons or just standing up and giving speeches.
Last July and August, the travel bill for ministers was about $350,000, a figure that was about twice as high or more for ministerial travel in any July and August going back to 2014, the last full year when the Conservatives ran the show. And that bill is for ministers only. It doesn’t include the travel costs of aides and assistants that frequently travel with the minister.
But this July and August are different.
As of July 1, Canada entered its first official pre-writ period, a period defined by changes the Liberals made to Canada’s elections law. In this pre-writ period, all political parties, the Liberals included, as well as all third parties, are restricted, by law, as far as the amount of money they may spend on advertising.
By decree, all federal government spending is suspended until a new government is sworn in after the Oct. 21 election.
But ministers are free, as they always have been, to fly around the country touting their government’s record — all on the taxpayer dime.
“Justin Trudeau is using tax dollars to announce tax money in order to win an election at the taxpayer expense,” Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre complained in an interview from Calgary this week.
Of course, it was Poilievre who, as a minister in Stephen Harper’s government, came under sharp criticism himself from Liberals and New Democrats for trying to put the government’s thumb on the partisan scale. Remember the pictures of him in a golf shirt with the Conservative logo on it as he announced, in the summer of 2015, $3 billion in child benefit payments?
But turnabout, in politics especially, is fair play, and while the Liberals may be more subtle than wearing shirts with their logo on it, it is their turn to defend their virtue when it comes to looking for every small advantage in what is shaping up to be a very tight contest this fall.
Now, Joly was not the only one out and about on Monday in some of the country’s battleground ridings — ridings that will definitely be in play right up until election night.
Seniors Minister Filomena Tassi, who represents a riding in Hamilton, Ont., was thousands of kilometres away in British Columbia, where for the last several days she has been meeting with voters who happen to be seniors. She has been warmly greeting them and reminding them of all things her government has done for seniors. Whether it was Kelowna or Kamloops or Vernon, she showed up with no cheques to hand out but was there to spread the gospel of good government her team had provided since 2015 and hopes to continue to provide for the next four years.
On Monday, Tassi had two events, one in the riding of Burnaby-South where, though the incumbent is NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, the Liberals might be able to make some mischief, and the other in the riding of Vancouver—Kingsway, where the Liberals are running what is widely considered a star candidate, former TV news anchor Tamara Taggart, who they hope can unseat New Democrat Don Davies.
Then, on Tuesday, Tassi took to playing defence, with two events in the riding of Langley—Aldergrove and one in South Surrey—White Rock. Liberals hold these ridings now, though they are exactly the kind of ridings Andrew Scheer and his Conservatives will be hotly contesting. What a good thing it would be if more than a few seniors there and elsewhere could spread the word of what a nice, sensible person that Minister Tassi in Justin Trudeau’s government seemed to be.
Tassi was unapologetic about this kind of travel, the kind she’s been doing since she was named to the post about a year ago.
“That’s really important in this portfolio,” she said during her stop in Vancouver. “We have been clear that we are going to build on what our government has done for seniors. And the way to do that is through this engagement.”
Tassi, Joly, and any other minister who has been on the road in this pre-writ period have similarly justified their travel.
The staff of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett noted that her travel Monday from Toronto, where Bennett makes her home, to Iqaluit so that Bennett could open a daycare and make a spending announcement had nothing to do with the fact that the riding of Nunavut is vacant and that former Conservative MP and Harper-era minister Leona Aglukkaq is running there again. No, it had everything to do with her assigned responsibilities for northern affairs.
And, as Bennett herself noted on Twitter, Tuesday happened to be the 20th anniversary of Nunavut becoming a territory, an occasion one would expect a minister to mark with her presence.
But then one looks to a new class of ministerial visit which seems unique this season to the Trudeau Liberals, the type of visit where ministers “highlight” projects that have benefitted from federal funding. In other words, ministers are not showing up with a cheque, they’re showing up to remind everyone that they gave you a cheque and now they want to see what you’ve done with the cheque and “celebrate” that project.
Infrastructure Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, normally at home in Shawinigan, Que., was on one of these types of tours Monday, in southern Ontario, the part of the country that everyone who writes about politics calls vote-rich.
Champagne’s tour started, also on Monday, in Orangeville, Ont., (riding: Dufferin-Caledon / Status: Vacant but likely Conservative) before he headed south to two events in the city of Oakville (ridings: Oakville North-Burlington and Oakville / status: Both incumbent Liberal but both leaning Conservative). He picked it up Tuesday in Brantford (riding: Brantford-Brant / status: incumbent Conservative and likely to remain so).
There’s more ahead on Wednesday as Champagne touches down in St. Catharines, Port Colborne and Niagara Falls.
Champagne is a charming, natural politician with a quick smile who is also expert at pointing out all the excellent things his government has done and will continue to do. He’s also pretty good at describing some of the terrible things that will happen if the Conservatives take over.
And it wasn’t just Joly, Tassi, Bennett and Champagne on tour.
Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau was in Whitehorse for a funding announcement. Rural Economic Development Minister Bernadette Jordan had a funding announcement in her Nova Scotia riding of South Shore—St. Margarets. Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson had something to say about avalanche awareness near his home in North Vancouver.
And that was all just Monday.
The rules on ministerial taxpayer-funded travel will change when Trudeau formally calls the election and takes the country out of this pre-writ period and into the writ period. The earliest he can do that, by law, is September 1.
Until then, Trudeau’s ministers have 54 more days to move freely around the country, announcing spending, celebrating previously announced spending, or just talking about the spending they’re likely to announce if only they’re re-elected on Oct. 21.
David Akin is Chief Political Correspondent for Global News
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