POLITICS

Federal Election 2015: Harper Looks To Make Inroads In Ontario Riding Held By NDP

08/19/2015 10:30 EDT | Updated 08/19/2016 05:59 EDT

LONDON, Ont. — Stephen Harper sang out of his economic songbook on Wednesday in London, Ont. to try and drown out the sound of repeated questions about his current and former chief of staff.

Harper started the day with a question-and-answer session with the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Dan Kelly, where he played up how Conservatives want to help small businesses.

"I think our record is pretty solid in lowering taxes for small business," Harper said.

The prime minister also took aim at opposition parties during the discussion.

"The other guys have consistently argued we should be massively increasing our spending levels ... and we all know that will be paid for in terms of higher deficits, higher debt, higher taxes."

Harper and his team are trying to steer the campaign away from politically sensitive developments unfolding at the trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy.

The party has also been in damage-control mode after an Ottawa courtroom heard on Tuesday that Benjamin Perrin, former lawyer for the Prime Minister's Office, told police that insider Ray Novak was aware of the now infamous $90,000 repayment scheme.

Novak became Harper's chief of staff after it became public Wright gave the money to Duffy to repay expense claims.

Harper continues to maintain Duffy and Wright have been held accountable but he will not comment further on Novak's role in the matter.

Novak, who is very close to the prime minister on a personal level, served as principal secretary before he became chief of staff.

"Obviously, as I've told you once again, I'm not going to discuss individual things before the court," Harper said.

Harper would not say if he has discussed the matter with Novak in the last couple of days.

Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke said Novak continues to be a part of Harper's campaign, but he has not been seen recently by media travelling with the party.

Last week, Teneycke told reporters it was "unfathomable" Novak knew about the $90,000 payment, but Perrin's statement to police contradicts that.

Barry Cooper, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said the Duffy issue makes for a "sexy story" but he argues the campaign will be about much more than the Duffy affair.

Cooper also said Conservatives likely find the issue "demoralizing" because of its constant coverage in the media.

Harper is scheduled to return to the same hotel in London on Wednesday evening before he moves on to Toronto.

The Conservatives are keen to pick up the London-Fanshawe riding, which is currently held by the NDP's Irene Mathyssen.

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