09/23/2015 03:40 EDT | Updated 09/23/2015 05:59 EDT

Mohamed Fahmy's Release, Clinton's Keystone Opposition Test Tories On Foreign Policy

The Conservatives have twinned security — keeping Canadians safe in an uncertain world — with the economy as core campaign themes.

OTTAWA — International affairs typically rate low on the list of Canadian federal election issues, but they've bubbled to the surface in the current campaign, proving to be a double-edged sword for the Conservatives.

Along with the economy, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has placed the broader issue of security front and centre. He's argued that only his government can keep the country safe in an uncertain world where Islamic militants are running amok and have targeted Canada.

But the outside world has intruded further, notably the explosive debate around Syrian refugees earlier this month, testing the carefully controlled Conservative campaign while continuing to give fuel to Harper's opponents.

On Wednesday, the release of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy from an Egyptian jail and the fallout from U.S. Democrat presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton's panning of the Keystone XL pipeline were the latest examples.

Both issues provided fodder for two unfavourable foreign policy narratives for the Conservatives: that they are insensitive to the plight of certain Canadians in trouble overseas and that Harper has been powerless to advance a major economic and foreign policy priority — winning White House approval for a pipeline from Alberta to the southern U.S.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May said Harper should have called Egypt's president personally, as Australia's prime minister did, which preceded the earlier release of one of Fahmy's Australian colleagues.

"It falls into the pattern of failing to stand up for Canadian citizens abroad," said May, who accused Harper of creating "two kinds of Canadians" and for not reaching out to help dual nationals, such as Fahmy.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Clinton's rejection of Keystone put her on the same page as "progressives" across North America. He said the pipeline — which would transport Alberta oilsands bitumen to the U.S. Gulf coast for refining and export — would only bleed jobs from Canada.

"Keystone XL represents the export of 40,000 Canadian jobs. I want to create those jobs here in Canada," said Mulcair.

The government was confronted by both developments on Wednesday when Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson appeared at a previously scheduled event in Etobicoke, with Harper taking a break from campaigning ahead of Thursday's leaders' debate.

Nicholson said winning Fahmy's release has been an ongoing priority for the government.

"I can tell you that in my conversation with the Egyptian foreign minister a couple of weeks ago I was both optimistic and encouraged by the comments that he made and so I'm glad to see that has come to fruition and pleased to hear of the pardon."

The minister sidestepped suggestions that the government may have pushed too hard to persuade the Obama administration to approve the Keystone project, which Harper himself has called a "no-brainer."

"This is important for both our countries," Nicholson said. "It's our continued hope that the Obama administration will make a decision on that, that it will be a favourable decision. This is good for both our countries."

In addition to Fahmy and Keystone, the Conservatives have had to contend with the fallout of the Syrian refugee crisis.

When the photograph of a dead three-year-old Syrian boy appeared in early September it suddenly focused the campaign on what Canada was doing to help Syrian refugees.

The refugee issue lingered for at least a week, opening the government to criticism it was not doing enough to help.

A leading international affairs expert says that foreign policy is coming up more than expected in this federal campaign, but in the end, it will still be the economy that decides the day on Oct. 19.

"Because it's a long campaign and the international world is turbulent — no surprise that whatever happens out there is going to be seized on by the opposition and government alike to be further grist for the campaign," said Fen Hampson, head of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.

"These aren't make-or-break issues."

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