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Erin O’Toole’s Shadow Cabinet Taps Key Players, Elevates Young MPs

The new Tory leader promises his team is a “government in waiting.”

New Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has unveiled a shadow cabinet that he says will not only take the fight to Liberals but show Canadians the Tories are a “government in waiting.”

O’Toole announced his 43-member team of critics in a press release Tuesday, a few days after unveiling his House of Commons leadership team. The Conservative caucus will meet Wednesday in Ottawa to prepare for the return of Parliament this month.

The newly minted leader has elevated some fresh faces who endorsed him in the leadership race and put experienced hands in new key roles. He also found room for the party’s former leader, Andrew Scheer, on the front benches.

Conservative MP Raquel Dancho, party leader Erin O'Toole, and Tory MP Michelle Rempel Garner are shown in a composite of images from The Canadian Press.
Conservative MP Raquel Dancho, party leader Erin O'Toole, and Tory MP Michelle Rempel Garner are shown in a composite of images from The Canadian Press.

“I am proud to present the Conservative government in waiting that will defeat Justin Trudeau’s corrupt Liberal government in the next election,” O’Toole said in the release, which suggests he will, like Scheer, refer to his critics as “shadow ministers.”

“In the coming weeks, we will be presenting a plan to put hardworking Canadians first, lead our nation out of this crisis and rebuild our great country.”

Here are seven key takeaways about O’Toole’s team.

Michelle Rempel Garner to serve as Tory point person on health

Despite its importance, the role of Opposition health critic has not typically been seen as the splashiest, at least when compared to critics for finance or foreign affairs. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent health emergency has likely changed all that.

In Michelle Rempel Garner, O’Toole has tapped an effective communicator with cabinet experience. Rempel Garner, who was first elected in 2011 and represents Calgary Nose Hill, served briefly as the minister of Western diversification under Stephen Harper.

With fears of a “second wave” of COVID-19 hitting this fall, Rempel Garner is tasked with holding Health Minister Patty Hajdu to account over the government’s strategy and proposing how a Conservative government would do things differently in the thick of an unprecedented situation.

Rempel Garner has experience with tough critic files that are also politically sensitive. She served as her party’s immigration and refugees critic after the 2015 election that saw Liberals emerge from debates over niqabs and so-called “barbaric cultural practices” with a majority government.

She challenged aspects of the government’s plans to welcome more than 50,000 Syrian refugees without causing political headaches for her party. She also passed a motion recognizing the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant’s violence against the Yazidis as genocide.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner speaks in Ottawa on May 7, 2019.
Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner speaks in Ottawa on May 7, 2019.

But Rempel Garner was also later challenged over her hardline stance against irregular border crossers from the U.S. making asylum claims in Canada and is no stranger to mixing it up on Twitter.

In a statement Tuesday, Rempel Garner said that health policy now impacts “virtually every part of our daily lives,” from protecting the wellbeing of Canadians to reuniting families to the long-term prospects of the economy. She said it is now “one of the single most important policy files of our time.”

She noted her experience before politics “helping to commercialize and manage early stage medical research” at the University of Calgary and University of Manitoba, and helping to aid the formation of two primary health-care networks in Alberta.

“Trudeau and his Health Minister’s failures related to the COVID-19 crisis can be measured in the number of Canadian lives and jobs lost. I will hold them to account for their slow and costly initial response to the pandemic, their conflicting and ever-changing health guidelines, and their failure to plan for a second wave beyond the vague threat of having to shut down the economy yet again,” she said.

“More importantly, I am eager to take on this role and support Erin O’Toole in presenting a clear plan which will protect Canadians while getting people back to work, school, and activities that we cherish but that aren’t there right now.”

Shannon Stubbs, who represents Alberta’s Lakeland, will also have a key role to play in light of the pandemic, particularly on the issue of border closures. She’s the new critic for public safety and emergency preparedness.

Pierre Poilievre stays put at finance

O’Toole evidently saw no need to make a change on the finance file after the summer shake up that saw Chrystia Freeland take the reins as finance minister after Bill Morneau’s abrupt departure from public life.

Pierre Poilievre, who has served as the Tory finance critic since September 2017, will stay on in the position. He will now take on Freeland in the House over government spending and programs that have resulted in a projected federal deficit of $343 billion this year.

With Trudeau promising a throne speech full of bold measures to “build Canada back better,” it falls to Poilievre to make the opposition’s case for what is not financially feasible. O’Toole told The Globe and Mail last week that a Tory government would work to return to a balanced budget within 10 years.

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Though Poilievre lacks real-world financial experience — he was first elected at age 25 in 2004 — his questions in the House are sharp and effective in either official language. He also brings cabinet experience, having served under Harper as employment minister and minister of democratic reform. And because he represents an Ottawa-area riding of Carleton, Poilievre can be tapped in a pinch for a Parliament Hill press conferences, as he held in recent weeks of the WE Charity controversy.

Freeland will provide a different kind of nemesis for Poilievre than did Morneau, whose communication skills and political instincts were questioned. In a 2017 video with the National Post, Poilievre conceded it was part of his job to get under the skin of the minister across from him.

“My job is to be a critic. We have a deliberately adversarial parliamentary system so I think I am performing a public service when I speak out against policies that I believe my constituents oppose,” he said at the time.

James Bezan, who has served as the Conservative defence critic since 2015, will also return to that job.

Michael Chong returns to a place of prominence

O’Toole has also named veteran Ontario MP Michael Chong his foreign affairs critic, a role the current Tory leader filled for his predecessors, Scheer and Rona Ambrose, before running for the top job.

Chong briefly served in Harper’s first cabinet before famously quitting in 2006 rather than supporting a motion recognizing that the “Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” Though he stayed on as a loyal Tory MP, Chong developed a maverick persona by pushing his own party on climate change and democratic reform. He ran for Tory leader in 2017 with a platform that included a revenue-neutral carbon tax, finishing fifth out of 13 candidates.

Chong had been serving as the critic for democratic institutions in Scheer’s last shadow cabinet, making his new role a clear promotion. He’ll square off against Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne.

O’Toole has already signalled that China will be a key foreign policy focus for his caucus. In his first press conference as leader last month, he said Canada under his leadership “will trade freely with free nations and not spend our time chasing trade deals with predatory countries like communist China.”

Conservative MP Michael Chong rises in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 5, 2018.
Justin Tang/CP
Conservative MP Michael Chong rises in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 5, 2018.

O’Toole also penned a column for the National Post where he said the government must do more to protect the oppressed Uyghur minority in China, and “speak up for Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have been targeted by the Communist regime.”

The issue is somewhat personal for Chong, whose father emigrated from Hong Kong in 1952. “I think politics is about your story,” Chong told HuffPost Canada in 2017. “It’s about who you are, where you come from, what experiences inform you.”

In June, Chong rose in the House to accuse the Liberal government of failing to defend democracy abroad by not speaking out more forcefully against a controversial security law that gives Beijing more power over Hong Kong.

“It is failing to be strong and clear on Hong Kong and, while the situation today is not that of decades past, it is clear that Canada in the past stood for the rights of people in Hong Kong,” he said.

Younger MPs enter the spotlight

O’Toole made a point during the leadership race of highlighting the support he was receiving from younger MPs, in contrast to the endorsements Peter MacKay was winning. His campaign even released a video touting his campaign’s momentum on that score.

On Tuesday, O’Toole rewarded positions to several rookie MPs under 40 who endorsed him instead of MacKay, the presumed front-runner, including:

  • Raquel Dancho (Kildonan—St. Paul, Man.), as the critic for immigration, refugees and citizenship;
  • Brad Vis (Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon, B.C.) as the critic for housing;
  • Eric Melillo (Kenora, Ont.) as the critic for northern affairs and federal economic development initiative for Northern Ontario (FedNor)
  • Warren Steinley (Regina—Lewvan, Sask.) as the critic for economic development and internal trade.

He also named several younger MPs with a few years of experience to his shadow cabinet, including:

  • Dane Lloyd (Sturgeon River—Parkland, Alta). as the critic for digital government;
  • Michael Barrett (Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, Ont.) as ethics critic;
  • Garnett Genuis (Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.) as the critic of international development and human rights;
  • John Nater (Perth—Wellington, Ont.) as critic for rural economic development;
  • Rosemarie Falk (Battlefords—Lloydminster, Sask.) as the critic for seniors.

In an interview over the summer, Dancho told HuffPost that Conservatives must do a better job appealing to millennial voters who formed the largest voting bloc in the last election.

“Millennials are now hitting 40. They’re really going to be the engine of the economy as the Baby Boomers retire, so they’re going to start caring more and more about fiscal responsibility, paying lower taxes,” she said. “A lot of the entrepreneurial spirit of the millennial generation… will take very kindly to Erin’s vision to create a very open market within Canada but also across the world.”

Some familiar faces sent to the backbenches

O’Toole had said his shadow cabinet would help more Canadians see a Conservative when they look in that mirror. To support that end, O’Toole only found room for six former ministers (including himself) in his shadow cabinet, though two former ministers — Candice Bergen and Tim Uppall — will serve on his House leadership team as deputy leader and caucus-party liaison, respectively.

Former ministers Peter Kent and Rob Moore made the cut. Kent, who represents the Ontario riding of Thornhill, will be the critic for employment, workforce development, and disability. Moore, who represents the New Brunswick riding of Fundy Royal, will be the critic for justice and the attorney general of Canada.

But other well-known figures from the Harper era were assigned no role at all, either because they weren’t asked or weren’t interested. Former ministers Ed Fast, Steven Blaney, Alice Wong, and Kerry-Lynne Findlay weren’t included. Findlay recently apologized for retweeting a video about Freeland and billionaire George Soros from “a source that promotes hateful conspiracy theories.”

Fast, Blaney, and Findlay had all endorsed MacKay for Tory leader. Leona Alleslev, the MP for Ontario’s Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill who gave up her role as deputy Tory leader this summer to endorse MacKay, was picked to serve on the national security committee, alongside Rob Morrison, MP for B.C.’s Kootenay—Columbia.

A spot for Scheer

As expected, O’Toole spared his predecessor the indignity of being left out of his shadow cabinet.

Andrew Scheer will now serve as his party’s critic for infrastructure and communities, a role that matters but is unlikely to give him a chance to outshine the new boss.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole gives former leader Andrew Scheer a fist-bump after his leadership election win in Ottawa on Aug. 24, 2020.
Patrick Doyle/CP
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole gives former leader Andrew Scheer a fist-bump after his leadership election win in Ottawa on Aug. 24, 2020.

Despite not leading the Tories to government last fall and an internal audit that showed Scheer billed the Conservative Party for his kids’ private school tuition fees, O’Toole’s decision to keep Scheer close could help him forge a second act. He’ll now get the chance to go toe-to-toe with Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna.

Scheer has said he will run in the next election and is no doubt hoping to follow in the footsteps of other former party leaders who lost elections but went on to become cabinet ministers, including Stockwell Day and Stephane Dion.

A no Sloan zone

Yet O’Toole did not make room on his team for the only other Tory leadership rival to already have a seat in the House. Derek Sloan, the rookie MP for Ontario’s Hastings—Lennox and Addington, was not named to any critic role.

O’Toole would not tell reporters asking last week what he intended to do with the social conservative MP, who finished fourth out of four in the race. Sloan sparked controversy during the race by, among other things, questioning the loyalty of Dr. Theresa Tam, railing against abortion rights, and comparing the banning of conversion therapy to child abuse.

Though Sloan lauded O’Toole during a debate for having his back on the Tam controversy, placing Sloan in the shadow cabinet would have complicated O’Toole’s messages about how the party must grow to include more women and LGBTQ members.

Conservative MP Derek Sloan attends a Conservative caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 24, 2020.
Justin Tang/CP
Conservative MP Derek Sloan attends a Conservative caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 24, 2020.

After the last leadership race, Scheer did not include controversial rivals Brad Trost and Kellie Leitch in his first shadow cabinet.

Liberal MP Pam Damoff has already called on O’Toole to boot Sloan from his caucus.

“If Mr. O’Toole wants to prove that he only pandered to far-right groups in order to win the leadership, and not as part of his vision for the next campaign, he has a lot of work ahead of him. However, the first item on his list needs to be removing Derek Sloan from his team,” Damoff said in a media release.

However, even if he wanted Sloan gone, it wouldn’t be O’Toole’s call. The Conservative caucus voted to give itself, rather than the leader, the power to remove caucus members.

Parliament resumes Sept. 23 with a speech from the throne.

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