Joe Oliver says terror threats a growing concern for Canadians

In what has become an annual tradition, hundreds of big- and small-C conservatives have converged on the capital for the 2015 Manning Networking Conference. Joe Oliver told a conference Friday that Conservatives wil bee talking a lot about national security in the upcoming election campaign.

James Moore and Jim Prentice among speakers Friday at Manning Networking Conference

Manning Networking Conference and former Reform Party Leader Preston Manning will hosted a panel discussion on energy, the environment and the economy with three western premiers Friday.

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 the Manning Networking 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. The annual event brings small- and big-C conservatives together to discuss strategy and politics.

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. 

"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."

'I'm talking about the economy'

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 told reporters 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 will remain the top priorities and will be reflected in the upcoming federal budget.

But Kenney said it doesn't mean the government shouldn't do something to respond to threats against international and Canadian security such as those posed by 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.

Ministers, strategists among other speakers

The Manning Centre's yearly confab brings together like-minded ideological warriors from all points on the conservative spectrum — from libertarians to social conservatives — to share their views on the state of the movement, both in Canada and internationally.

In addition to Oliver, conference attendees also heard from BC Premier Christy Clark, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski and Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, who discussed balancing economic,development and environmental cncerns during a series of one-on-one chats on "energy, environment and the economy" with conference founder and namesake Preston Manning.

Later in the afternoon, Industry Minister James Moore, Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Google Canada representative Colin McKay and political strategist Goldy Hyder took part in a lively panel discussion on how technology is changing politics

Mobile users: Follow our #MNC15 live blog here

With files from CBC News