QUEBEC — A feistier Stephen Harper appeared on the campaign trail Tuesday as volatile world markets pushed the election debate back to his favourite subject: the economy.
The Conservative leader launched a pointed attack on the Liberals' fiscal record of the 1990s, shared his concerns about the global economy and even took the unusual step of emerging from his tightly managed campaign bubble to mingle with ordinary folks in Quebec City.
Harper's day unfolded as turbulent markets rebounded in part from Monday's steep slide, crude-oil prices bounced back but stayed below US$40 a barrel and the dollar remained low.
"These are challenging times, but I think they speak once again to why this government's strategy is the correct one," Harper said in Quebec City, where he announced a plan to improve port facilities in the province.
"You do not — as any financial planner will tell you, whether it's from the prime minister on down — you do not run around and change your plans based on daily market news. You have a long-term plan and you stick to it."
The renewed focus on the economy arrived at an ideal time for Harper.
It has partly overshadowed potentially damaging revelations that have come out at the Mike Duffy trial. Harper has fielded numerous uncomfortable questions related to senator's expenses scandal in recent weeks.
The shift came as polls suggest Harper is locked in a tight three-way battle with the NDP and the Liberals.
Stephen Harper greets people outside a Quebec City cafe.
It also coincided with a rare campaign-trail activity for Harper: greeting people outside of a tightly controlled environment or a partisan event.
Harper and his wife, Laureen, emerged from their campaign bus in Quebec City's old town on Tuesday. They greeted people on the sidewalk and inside a coffee shop, where a grinning Harper posed for photos with staff and chatted with customers.
Earlier in the day, a scrappier Harper had used some of his extra energy to criticize his opponents.
Harper went on the offensive when asked about Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's new economic team, which features former prime minister Paul Martin, who helped balance the federal books during his time as finance minister in the 1990s.
Martin spoke Tuesday about his record, highlighting accomplishments like his eight budgetary surpluses and the actions he took to pay down the public debt.
Harper had a different take.
Stephen Harper speaks to a crowd in Montreal on Tuesday.
"During the 90s, when the world economy had a better performance than it does right now, the Liberals lost control of the deficit," he said, adding that the Liberals hiked taxes and cut transfers to provinces.
"And by consequence, to balance the budget they increased, in a big way, taxes. They cut, in a big way, health and education transfers.
"It is completely the opposite of this government's plan and Canadians don't want to return to such an era."
Harper himself, however, has repeatedly been forced to defend his own track record, particularly after the economy shrank in each of the first five months of 2015. The decline was has been blamed in part on the oil-price collapse.
His opponents have charged that he did little to help other struggling sectors, such as manufacturing, while observers have warned the country may have slipped into recession.
Protester disrupts Quebec speech
Later Tuesday, loud partisan booing greeted a protester who interrupted Harper's stump speech in the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire.
"Take action on climate! Who's ready? Who's going to do it?" shouted the man, holding up a sign that read: "Vote For Climate Justice." He was promptly dragged from the room by security.
Harper resumed his speech after a brief pause and, a moment later, used an often-used line from his addresses: "And who is the first government in Canadian history to reduce greenhouse gases?"
His audience erupted in cheers.
Harper has pointed to external factors as the main cause of Canada's recent economic troubles. He cited one glimmer of good news: financial and banking systems around the world are holding steady.
Kory Teneycke, the Conservatives' spokesman, declined to speculate Tuesday whether the renewed attention on the economy would benefit Harper's campaign, saying he would leave that debate up to the pundits.
Earlier in the day, Harper announced a plan to improve port facilities in Quebec as part of what he called a maritime prosperity initiative.
A re-elected Conservative government would provide funding for a new marine terminal at the Alexandra Pier at the Port of Montreal and an expanded cruise ship terminal in Quebec City.
Harper said improved facilities for cruise liners would attract more tourists, while the new Montreal terminal would be critical for the prosperity of Quebec and the whole country.
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