Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Mixed feelings as COVID clip snowbirds wings
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
Daily fall forecasts and weather facts from Cindy Day
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
What you need to know about COVID-19: October 20, 2020
Erin O’Toole admits to feeling “a little sidelined” – confined to his home after testing positive for COVID, instead of rising in the House of Commons to grill the prime minister on this week’s throne speech.
In an interview on Thursday morning, the new Conservative leader said he is experiencing “fairly mild” flu-like symptoms and catching up with “an avalanche of well-wishes” sent by friends after he won the leadership a month ago.
With the House prorogued until this week, it has been a low-profile start for a leader who remains a relative unknown to many voters.
Despite that, even hard-bitten neutrals admit he has impressed them with the way he has conducted himself.
The incoming second wave would indicate that an election is not imminent. But the Liberals are already preparing their narrative – that they will “build back better”, in contrast to the Conservative’s “austerity” plan.
It is a strategy that has worked for Trudeau in two successive elections and it presents a problem for any leader whose platform is less generous.
O’Toole’s response is that people are tiring of Liberal “marketing campaigns” in the face of disappointing outcomes.
“The prime minister said in March that rapid testing was a top priority. I can tell you, having been hours in long lines, that we don’t have rapid testing, particularly in Ontario. If after six months and billions spent we still don’t have that, it’s time for a serious government,” he said.
There are areas where the Conservatives are in agreement with the Liberals.
O’Toole concedes the wage subsidy needs to be extended for “a number of particularly impacted sectors” like tourism.
“The government botched the wage subsidy and needed a second emergency bill to get it up to 75 per cent. When they set up CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit), they didn’t give employers certainty about the wage subsidy, which resulted in businesses shedding more jobs than should have been the case,” he said. Yet he agrees with the principle of preserving jobs in “partial hibernation” until economic activity returns.
“Should it be more targeted and specific? Yeah, we would look at that,” he said.
The Conservative leader was more critical of the Liberal approach to deficit spending that he said threatens a potential debt crisis in the future.
O’Toole said the reliance on low interest rates is “the equivalent of their fiscal anchor.”
“That should concern all Canadians. They seem willing to bankrupt the nation in order to win the next election,” he said.
He suggested an O’Toole-led Conservative government would seek to get excessive expenditure under control by the end of its first mandate and balance the books within a decade.
“I’d love to see confidence restored in capital investment in Canada. I’d like to see us as a place where people want to get projects done, where we have better prices through completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline and hopefully Keystone as well… And I’d would like to see some strategic manufacturing capacity returned to Canada, not just for the key PPE (personal protective equipment) but also some strategic industries that I think we have to start removing from China’s sphere of influence,” he said.
O’Toole raised eyebrows with an ad that promoted a “Canada First” approach, which dissed trade agreements and argued GDP growth is “not the be-all-and-end-all.”
It turns out to have been more of a rhetorical device than a repudiation of globalism.
“If I’m talking to a steelworker in Sault St. Marie or Hamilton, which economic indicator is more important to them – GDP or the employment rate?” he said. “I want working families to know our focus is their well-being by seeking better trade deals and opening new markets as we re-balance trade away from China.”
O’Toole said the Liberal government’s apparent indifference to the fate of the oil and gas industry, and the repercussions on national unity and the balance of trade, suggests a “disconnect from reality.”
“Last week I had a fairly long call with the prime minister and said to him that from a national unity perspective and an economic rebuilding perspective, we need the resource sector to do well…We had a philosophical debate in which he seemed to believe the acquisition of the Trans Mountain pipeline was a gift he gave to Western Canada, when really it was a result of his mismanagement of the environmental approval process that caused $150 billion in capital to leave the country. We can’t afford for that to happen…Energy is still our largest exporting industry and makes a huge contribution to GDP. Why undermine that when the economy is on its knees?”
Such opinions are welcomed in Western Canada.
But O’Toole’s challenge is to rebuild the coalition of support that elected Stephen Harper as prime minister in three successive elections – a combination of Westerners and suburbanites in Ontario.
Canada’s largest province sees itself as the buckle that holds the country together and voters in the 905 region around Toronto will respond well to O’Toole’s unity message.
But the climate file is a different matter.
A Leger poll for the Canadians for Clean Prosperity organization suggested two thirds of potential Conservative voters in 905 want to see a serious climate plan that includes a carbon tax and rebate. O’Toole has been a vocal opponent of a carbon tax but has been more open to other forms of carbon pricing – his leadership platform said if provinces want to use market mechanisms or other forms of carbon pricing, that is up to them. “The federal government will be there to support them,” it read.
O’Toole’s predecessor, Andrew Scheer, was unable to convince voters that he took climate change seriously. The new leader has the opportunity to show that it’s an issue he cares about.
He said on Thursday that the initiatives the Liberals announced in the throne speech on retrofitting homes and businesses echo measures in the last Conservative platform. He said if policies “reduce emissions without undermining productivity as a country, they are areas that should be examined.”
O’Toole might be quietly relieved that the Liberals have bought NDP support by increasing the weekly Canada Recovery Benefit, which should avert a fall election.
He needs time to introduce himself to voters and has started that laborious process with an ad that reveals he lost his mother to breast cancer at a young age and learned about service from his hockey coach, a Durham region police officer.
The spot was unorthodox but you would have to have a heart of flint not to be moved by it.
O’Toole was a surprise victor in the Conservative leadership race – chosen over Peter MacKay, judged by many to be more charismatic and a better orator. The same could be said about Justin Trudeau, who appears to have forgotten that voters signaled a year ago that they want to see less of him making promises and more of him keeping them.
The new leader’s hopes rest in large measure on Trudeau under-delivering on the pledges made in the throne speech.
For his part, he has to present himself as sympathetic, smart and genuine. So far, so good.
O’Toole may be sidelined but it has been a solid first month.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020