Conservative leader Erin O’Toole heads into a possible election campaign this summer knowing the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic put him at a competitive disadvantage compared to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In an end-of-session interview airing Saturday on CBC’s The House, O’Toole acknowledged that polls have consistently put his party behind the governing Liberals since he became leader last August.
It’s ground he said can be made up in the weeks ahead, as travel and meeting restrictions begin to ease across the country and as Zoom calls are replaced by zooming from province to province.
“We’re basically where we started, like the country is — waiting for a re-opening,” he said. “And there’s only one party with a plan. We have a five-point recovery plan that launched in March that will get people working.”
CBC News: The House19:05Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole looks ahead to the next election
‘People will hear the message’
The plan is called “Secure the Future” and it includes a promise to recover a million jobs lost during the pandemic within a year, a new anti-corruption law that would include tougher conflict of interest and lobbying rules, and a vow to balance the budget over the next decade.
“As we get back on the road, as we open up kind of around Canada Day, when a lot of provinces will be reducing restrictions, people will hear the message,” he said. “And I think there is a fatigue with a government that is constantly in ethical scandals, that constantly divides one part of the country against the other.”
In the week before the House rose for its annual summer holiday, O’Toole spent a lot of time stitching together the themes of a campaign platform that accuses the Liberals of caring more about rewarding their political friends than helping Canadians recover from the pandemic.
WATCH: O’Toole goes after Trudeau’s record in final QP before summer break
“My question is simple to the prime minister — will he commit to Canadians that he and his cabinet will never break another law?” O’Toole said Wednesday, staring directly into the cameras at a prime minister who was taking part in question period while in quarantine at home.
“While Conservative politicians are focused on baseless personal attacks, our steadfast focus has been on delivering for Canadians by getting progressive bills passed,” Trudeau replied.
That decidedly personal edge — an opposition leader going after a prime minister’s ethical standards — isn’t a total departure in Canadian politics.
Former NDP leader Tom Mulcair did it to then-prime minister Stephen Harper. O’Toole’s predecessor, Andrew Scheer, tried the same tactic with Trudeau heading into the 2019 election.
It turned out not to be a winning strategy for either opposition leader.
O’Toole said he sees a different outcome for him if Canadians go to the polls later this summer.
He ran down a list of this government’s ethical lapses: three investigations into the prime minister by the federal ethics commissioner, two into former finance minister Bill Morneau, the prime minister’s insistence that he knew nothing about the sexual misconduct allegations against the former chief of defence staff.
“Well, I think people vote for their local MP. They vote for party. They also vote based on leadership and I don’t think Mr. Trudeau has demonstrated ethical leadership. It’s something very important for me,” he said.
“As someone who came from the sort of middle class of the Toronto suburbs and served in the military … standing up for what is right, being honest and putting the country first is what I’ve done my entire adult life. And I think there’s a different culture with Mr. Trudeau.
“[It’s] not personal attacks against him. As I said, on reconciliation and other things, I know he’s sincere. He just never delivers and constantly lets people down.”
But the challenges O’Toole faces aren’t limited to a better-known opponent who happens to be the prime minister.
One of his first trips as restrictions ease this summer will be to Alberta, a Conservative stronghold, where the separatist Maverick Party is threatening to run candidates. One of O’Toole’s most prominent backers, Premier Jason Kenney, is facing challenges of his own over his government’s pandemic response.
For O’Toole, Kenney and fellow Conservative premiers Doug Ford in Ontario and Brian Pallister in Manitoba may be more of a burden than a lift in a campaign.
O’Toole said he’s not worried, that Canadians understand the difference between provincial and federal politics. He said he blames the Trudeau government for the problems those premiers faced during the pandemic.
“It was a challenging set of circumstances for all premiers because Ottawa approves vaccines, does the contracts, closes the border,” he said. “And if they made mistakes on those — which they did — the provinces pay the price.
“And I hope more Canadians get to see that there’s an opportunity to move the country forward in a positive way. And I just want them to take a look at the Conservative Party.”
O’Toole is also hoping, of course, that Canadians like what they see.