03/06/2015 03:38 EST | Updated 05/06/2015 05:59 EDT

Joe Oliver: National Security Becoming A Top Election Issue

OTTAWA - Canada's finance minister is saying publicly what political observers have long suspected: expect to hear the Conservatives talking a lot about national security in the upcoming election campaign.

Joe Oliver told a conference Friday that the threat of terrorism at home and around the world has become a significant concern for Canadian voters — rivalling even the economy, a perennial favourite.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Oliver's remarks came on a day when terrorism was on the minds of Canadians, with RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson briefing MPs about the investigation into last year's deadly attack on Parliament Hill.

Oliver told his Ottawa audience that while pocketbook issues remain the top priority for Canadians, national security is a mounting concern.

"The reality is there's a war being conducted by international terrorists, by jihadist terrorists," Oliver said in the question-and-answer session that followed his address to the Manning Centre networking event.

"That's an issue which you normally don't think about in the context of an election, but it's emerged as something that Canadians are concerned about."

Oliver later dismissed the notion that the government, always keen to burnish its fiscal credentials, would prefer these days to talk about terror threats and public safety than they would the hobbled Canadian economy.

"I'm talking about the economy and I haven't changed the message at all," Oliver said following his appearance.

"But when new facts or threats emerge, the government has a responsibility to respond to them and that's what we're doing.

"It's not my portfolio but others who have that responsibility are responding and the prime minister, of course, is talking about it. This is an issue of importance."

Oliver's department, meanwhile, has been focused on another pressing matter: the negative economic impact of low oil prices.

He delayed the release of the federal budget — April at the earliest, he says; it's usually February — so his department could get a better handle on just how badly cheaper crude would hurt the economy.

The delay has been beneficial, he acknowledged, because his team knows more now than it did a few months ago.

"It's getting closer, the date is getting closer," said Oliver, who also refused to answer questions about what might be included in the budget.

Oliver's cabinet colleague, Defence Minister Jason Kenney, said the government was elected to focus on economic growth and jobs — subjects he stressed are the top priorities, and will be reflected in the upcoming federal budget.

But Kenney said that doesn't mean the government shouldn't respond to threats against international and Canadian security such as those posed by the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

"I think it's obvious that the attacks in October were at least inspired by the insane vision of ISIL ... a genocidal terrorist organization that has explicitly, and on several occasions, said that it's targeting Canada," he told The Canadian Press on the sidelines of the conference.

Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives have enjoyed a bump in popular support following the October terror attacks in Quebec and Ottawa and after the government's decision to send fighter jets to Iraq.

The government also introduced a contentious anti-terrorism bill earlier this year and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spent more and more time talking about the escalating threat, which he calls "violent jihadism."

Earlier this week, the Conservatives generated more controversy with a Facebook fundraising post that referenced a threat by the terror group Al-Shabab against the West Edmonton Mall. The post features a photo of a masked person wearing fatigues, complete with the mall's logo, and a caption asking for support for the government's proposed anti-terrorism legislation.

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, a former Harper cabinet minister, was asked Friday whether the Tories' efforts to fundraise on the threat was appropriate.

"I think that the concern to me as premier is to make sure the mall is safe," said Prentice, who also appeared at the Ottawa conference.

— with files from Jennifer Ditchburn

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