OTTAWA - Stephen Harper is trying to quell speculation that he'll resign before the next election.
In televised, year-end interviews with Global News and Quebec's TVA network, the prime minister said he intends to lead the Conservative party in the scheduled fall 2015 campaign.
Harper's leadership has been the subject of mounting speculation since the Senate expenses scandal landed squarely on his doorstep last spring.
"It's kind of surreal," Harper told Global's Ottawa bureau chief, Jacques Bourbeau.
"One day I open the paper and see that I'm planning to resign, the next day I open the paper and see that I'm calling a snap election ahead of the legislated date.
"We have an election scheduled in 2015 and I plan to lead the party in that."
In the meantime, Harper insisted he'll remain focused on governing, particularly on the economic challenges and opportunities facing the country.
He reiterated his government's commitment to balancing the budget by 2015, well ahead of most other developed countries. Once back in the black, he suggested his government won't be going on a pre-election spending spree.
"Eventually we'll get a surplus and no matter how big it is, the demands will be ten times as big as the surplus," he told Global.
"But we'll pick our spots carefully, as I say, to make sure we keep our debt going down, make sure taxpayers get their share and also make sure that we contribute to, quote, some dreams and some development — but in ways that provide real, concrete payback."
The government has promised to reduce the debt to GDP ratio to 25 per cent by 2021, down from the current 33 per cent. And it has promised to introduce limited income splitting for couples with children once the books are balanced.
As for any new spending, Harper said the government will focus on measures that will improve productivity, including infrastructure investments. And he revealed it will soon be launching "some big transformations" of the immigration system aimed at resolving the mismatch between job openings and the skills of available Canadian workers.
The "passive" system of processing applications of would-be immigrants will be replaced with what Harper called "the expression of interest system," which would allow the government to more actively recruit immigrants who can enter the workforce immediately.
Harper made it clear in both TV interviews that he intends to campaign in the next election on his government's economic management.
The Conservatives are "the only party that has a serious policy on the number one priority of the people and that is the economy," he told TVA anchorman Pierre Bruneau.
But the government's economic record has been overshadowed for most of the past year by the scandal over four senators who allegedly made improper expense claims. And the furor is unlikely to diminish in the new year, as the RCMP continues to investigate and possibly lay charges against the four.
Harper's office has been directly implicated by revelations that his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally gave $90,000 to Mike Duffy to enable the senator to repay contested living expense claims.
Harper continued to insist he knew nothing about that transaction until news leaked out in mid-May and said he felt "anger, betrayal, disrespect ... disappointment" when he found out.
Emails and witness statements filed in court by the RCMP suggest more than a dozen top people in the Prime Minister's Office, the Senate leadership and the Conservative party were involved in hammering out the secret deal with Duffy, which included attempts to interfere with an independent audit and the whitewashing of a Senate report on Duffy's expenses.
In the Global interview, Harper didn't say whether he thinks the conduct of some of the other players in the scandal, including other PMO staffers, was appropriate. But he suggested everyone else was acting at Wright's behest.
"What's so troubling about Mr. Wright's decision is the decision was a decision he made without authority and he made in secret and then directed a lot of people to do other things based on a misunderstanding or misinformation about what the truth of the situation was."
Since May, Harper said his office has been seriously reviewing its operating procedures to ensure the prime minister is never kept in the dark about such major decisions in future. He wouldn't go into any detail about the "fixes" that have been proposed thus far.
After initially accepting Wright's resignation with regret, Harper became increasingly critical of his one-time chief of staff as the scandal mushroomed during the fall. He went so far as to say he fired Wright because of the "deception" he had masterminded.
Harper was somewhat more charitable Thursday, telling Global he continues to ask himself: "How could a guy who's so smart and generally so respectful of the rules, so high performing, how could he do something that's so obviously wrong and not realize it before he did it?"
The only answer he's come up with is that "sometimes good people do bad things."
Harper was relatively parsimonious with the traditional spate of year-ending televised interviews this year. CTV, which broke news of the Wright-Duffy affair, was shut out, as was the CBC.
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