OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is out to modernize his party, and his first week in Parliament demonstrated just how he plans to do that — and the instincts he may need to keep in check as he prepares for the next election.
Dressed in a blue suit and wearing a striped orange tie to mark Sept. 30 as Orange Shirt Day, a day of remembrance for the survivors and victims of Indian Residential Schools, O’Toole’s first question as leader of the Official Opposition was about the Liberals’ record on reconciliation.
That question — about why the federal government has yet to deliver on a promise to close the gap on health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities and to publish an annual progress report based on indicators, such as infant mortality, suicide, addiction, life expectancy and chronic diseases — was noticeably different from lead questions of previous Tory leaders.
Watch: Erin O’Toole says Liberals are “all talk and no action” on Indigenous matters. Story continues below.
After it received mostly a non-answer from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, O’Toole quickly moved on to questions about rapid COVID-19 testing. But the signal was noticed by the Grits and political watchers.
O’Toole, who recently came out of isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus, spent most of his time and his party’s focus in question period Wednesday on rapid testing. Knowing Canadians are concerned about their families’ health and safety, especially in Ontario and Quebec, where daily case counts are surpassing spring records for infections, and people are having to spend hours in line waiting to be tested, and then waiting days before getting their results, O’Toole said he has not only heard those concerns but has partly shared in that experience.
But like his question on reconciliation, O’Toole’s attacks against Trudeau rang of a rabid partisan unable to shed the instincts of hyperbole and to stick to the facts.
Trudeau’s record on Indigenous matters is disappointing and lacking, but the Liberals have moved some issues forward. It isn’t, as O’Toole contended, “all talk and no action” with “zero follow through.” Similarly, most people do not believe the prime minister is personally to blame because Health Canada had not — until Wednesday — approved a rapid COVID-19 test that worked.
O’Toole’s electoral coalition may depend on voters who once cast a ballot for Trudeau. The prime minister’s personal approval numbers are nearly 20 per cent higher than O’Toole’s, according to Abacus Data, and the Liberals are still leading in the polls and flirting with majority territory.
The Tory leader might be better served by sticking to the facts. He did on Thursday, when he led off question period wondering why the Liberals were investigating their own decision to shut down the Global Public Health Intelligence Network. It’s an internationally known pandemic surveillance alert system based on open data that was shut down in May 2019, reportedly so the federal government could focus on other domestic priorities, but was revived earlier this year after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.
Listening to O’Toole this week, it was hard not to notice to whom he is directly and indirectly extending olive branches — the electoral coalition he hopes to build.
First, of course, women voters. Speaking in a shot framed by the only two women sitting on the Conservative side of the House, O’Toole made six nods to his wife, Rebecca, and even mentioned her best friend, Dawn, who dropped Tim Horton’s by their house, ringing the doorbell and driving away.
“Unions foster community and workplace cultures where workers know that someone has their back.”
Second, the NDP-Conservative switchers. In a far cry from the anti-union bills prime minister Stephen Harper worked to pass, O’Toole praised organized labour as a group that helps build strong communities.
“Unions foster community and workplace cultures where workers know that someone has their back,” he said. Unions fight for workers when they are sick and fight for them against unfair tariffs, he said.
There was, of course, a nod to workers in the oil patch — though framed in a sympathetic tone as a community left behind in Trudeau’s vision of a better Canada.
Trudeau’s Canada, he said, “is the vision presented in the throne speech, where a person is judged by the job they have or where they live, if they are lucky enough to even have a job after COVID: a Canada where the government decides what jobs people have and what cars they drive, a Canada where millions of Canadians are knowingly left behind and are told the country will be building back better without them.”
Trudeau is harming national unity: O’Toole
The Conservative leader accused the prime minister of harming national unity. O’Toole noted that when he became a cabinet minister in 2015, the Bloc Québécois was not an official party and that there was no such thing as the Wexit movement.
“Now there are more members signed up for an email, looking into [Western] separation, than there are members of the Liberal Party of Canada.”
(The Liberal party says it counts about 200,000 supporters across Canada. Wexit Canada, now known as the Maverick Party, is a party that actually plans to challenge the Conservatives in the next federal election to become the dominant voice for the region, accusing it of selling out to central Canada’s interests.
The Bloc’s rise is also a story about the influence of a new leader, the NDP’s collapse in the province because of their new leader, and one about how the Tories, as much as, if not more than, the Liberals, failed to capitalized on an opportunity to gain seats in Quebec’s more rural areas and smaller towns).
“I will increase health transfers to the provinces by providing stable, predictable funding, no strings attached.”
O’Toole has set his sights on winning in Quebec, and his speech to the Commons made clear note of it. He promised billions in health care funding with no federal conditions — just as Quebec Premier François Legault and his counterparts had requested.
“My plan is clear. I will increase health transfers to the provinces by providing stable, predictable funding, no strings attached. This is about respecting the jurisdiction of the provinces,” O’Toole said.
The Harper government had previously been concerned that the premiers ask for money for health care but end up spending it on other matters — a concern also shared, in private, by the Trudeau Liberals.
Indigenous Canadians — especially Indigenous entrepreneurs, were specifically told O’Toole is concerned about their welfare and their opportunities. The new Conservative leader also noted that both the Liberals and the Conservative have a “bad record when it comes to the Indigenous experience.”
“We have a lot to do on this side, but the Liberals certainly have a lot to do as well,” he said.
On Thursday, O’Toole faced a legislation he knew would be coming but probably wished it didn’t, the Liberals’ ban on conversion therapy.
Bill C-6 might prove difficult for O’Toole, who makes note of his pro-LGBTQ voting record but must also balance the fact that he won his party’s leadership by appealing to social conservatives, many of whom are concerned by the bill or outright oppose it.
Speaking in French and in English, O’Toole twice told the Commons: “Conversion therapy is wrong. In my view, it should be banned.”
But he also suggested he may vote against the bill, saying the Tories would be “seeking reasonable amendments to try to get to yes on this.” He urged the government to be “reasonable,” fully aware of the political games at play.
As O’Toole said in his speech: “Canada needs a leader for all Canadians, with a plan for all of Canada, not just the parts where the Liberal government finds its votes.”
But as the new Tory leader’s actions demonstrate, O’Toole’s electoral success may depend on areas where the Liberal government found its votes as well.