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Blame, Partisan Shots Over COVID-19 Pandemic Could Be Signs Of Spring Election (Analysis)

The “partisan side” of the COVID-19 crisis could be a “good opportunity” for Erin O’Toole, Harper’s former campaign manager says.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are shown in a composite image of photos from The Canadian Press.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are shown in a composite image of photos from The Canadian Press.

OTTAWA — As Canadians prepare for the holidays, their politicians are already in a finger-pointing season that has kicked into high gear.

The cause? A potential spring election. Many Conservatives and Liberals believe a federal contest is likely in the new year, and the parties’ new strategies reflect it.

“We are seeing now the partisan side of what is going to happen,” said Jenni Byrne, prime minister Stephen Harper’s former campaign manager and a close friend of current Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, on the latest episode “Follow-Up,” HuffPost Canada’s political podcast.

“I think it’s actually a good opportunity for O’Toole,” Byrne said.

Watch: Conservatives, NDP slam lack of Liberal plan for vaccines

“Six to eight months ago, people were willing to give all politicians the benefit of the doubt. No one really knew what was going on. Everyone was kind of navigating things together. Everything was new. That’s not so anymore.”

People are more engaged, she said. Everyone knows more about the ramifications of COVID-19, and people are starting to feel it more, she added.

“I think that [this] actually can be a benefit for O’Toole, if they can flip this on the Liberals.”

Byrne pointed to the Liberals’ admitting their recently passed commercial rent relief bill needed to be amended.

Listen: “Follow-Up” on Erin O’Toole’s first 100 days:

Over the weekend, the Conservatives’ health critic, Michelle Rempel Garner, put it more plainly. The time has come to blame the federal Liberals, she said.

“We should be openly questioning the competence of the Trudeau government, because they’re asking Canadians to keep sacrificing and trusting them while they are making gross failures on this and so many other fronts,” she wrote in the National Post.

Canadians are far worse off than they were just a few months ago, she argued in her column, pointing to thousands dead, billions added to the national debt, millions losing their jobs, businesses forced to closed, civil liberties infringed upon, children missing months of schooling, families isolated from one another, and a mental health crisis emerging as the governments’ lockdown measures — an intended temporary response to the pandemic — appear permanent.

At the time of Rempel Garner’s writing, O’Toole had just joined opposition party leaders for a briefing with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam. While Green Party Leader Annamie Paul emerged from the meeting calling it a national emergency that transcends all jurisdictions and urging everyone to pull together, Rempel Garner suggested the second-wave spike could have been avoided if the Liberals had provided widespread rapid testing for all Canadians, including access to at-home tests, and invested in more comprehensive data to allow the public to judge whether prevention measures work.

In the House of Commons, all sides blame each other. O’Toole and Rempel Garner jumped on Trudeau’s acknowledgment this week that Canadians won’t be at the front of the line for vaccinations. This is despite the fact the federal government has purchased, according to The Economist magazine, more doses of vaccines per capita than any other country — including the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Australia, or Japan — and the largest portfolio of vaccine candidates — because Canada has no production facility to manufacture the vaccines.

O’Toole says Trudeau put Canada ‘at the back of the line’ on vaccines

“We know that most of the world will receive the vaccine before Canadians do,” O’Toole said Thursday. “Why did the prime minister negotiate deals that put Canada at the back of the line for COVID-19 vaccine?”

The Conservative leader suggested Canadians wouldn’t be vaccinated until 2023. Rempel Garner suggested Wednesday that Canadians might not be vaccinated until 2030.

Trudeau responded that Canadians would receive the vaccine “well in advance of the dates she is offering up.” He blamed the previous Conservative government for the lack of vaccine manufacturing capacity, and hid behind advice he said he received from scientists for his government’s response.

“Over the past months, experts have worked with this government to put Canadians in the very best possible position on vaccines,” he told the Commons Wednesday. (He was not in the chamber Thursday.) “We are continuing to work with experts on a rollout plan. We have faith in our top scientists and doctors as we take a whole-of-government approach to delivering vaccines for Canadians as soon as possible.”

Trudeau did not say whether Ottawa attempted to negotiate manufacturing capacity. Instead, the prime minister attempted to recreate a wedge issue that has worked well for the Liberals in the past, casting the Tories as anti-science. His words seemed intended to recall the outcry after the Harper government’s decision to cancel the long-form census and muzzle government scientists.

Trudeau’s comments came the same day Ontario’s auditor general slammed the province’s Progressive Conservative government for failing to heed public health advice. Also Thursday, the CBC reported that Alberta’s United Conservative Party government is also ignoring Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s advice.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner asks a question in the House of Commons on Oct. 23, 2020.
Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner asks a question in the House of Commons on Oct. 23, 2020.

The prime minister’s effort to share blame — and credit —with government scientists may work, if he’s telling the truth. Three government experts, the first of what are expected to be weekly briefings, appeared in-person before reporters Thursday to discuss the federal government’s rollout strategy for vaccines. The group attempted to quell concerns from the Tories, the premiers, and the public that Canadians would be at the back of the line for vaccinations — spending months watching American neighbours get immunized before they do.

If, however, a paper trail proves the prime minister is not telling the truth, he could be in trouble. Recall that his government was found to be less than entirely truthful this summer. Documents revealed that Bardish Chagger, the minister for diversity, inclusion and youth, had spoken with one of the WE Charity founders before the establishment of a national volunteer program, one that would later be awarded to the group to manage, despite her saying she had not spoken to WE beforehand.

Trudeau was asked during a CBC radio interview Thursday if there were times he had not taken his chief medical officer’s advice.

He did not say “no,” only that he could not recall going “directly went against or [having] pushed back very hard against scientific advice.”

Over on the Conservative side, campaign planning appears to be in full swing. The party asked its members this week what issues it should focus on in the next election (Seniors and long term care? Environment? Creating jobs?), what they believe helps make a winning campaign strategy (Lawn signs? Local candidate debates?), and what campaign activities they would be willing to participate in.

O’Toole is also fanning the flames of a bizarre conspiracy theory that is getting traction among some potential voters, angry over what is being called “the Great Reset.”

O’Toole insisted this week he “[doesn’t] follow social media.” But he and his finance critic Pierre Poilievre have pressed the buttons of those who believe “global financial elites” are attempting to usurp power for themselves at the expense of everyday people.

In a video posted to social media, O’Toole expresses shock that anyone could see the “carnage caused by COVID-19 and see an opportunity.” The Conservative leader then accuses Trudeau and the Liberals of wanting to use the pandemic “to implement a massive and risky experiment to remake the economy.”

The prime minister has spoken for months about the inequalities the pandemic exposed: the crisis in long term care homes, the gaps in the social safety net, the health inequalities faced by racialized Canadians.

In the spring, when speaking to Canadians with disabilities, Trudeau said: “If this crisis has laid bare the gaps that still exist for far too many Canadians, it has also given us an opportunity to address them. It has encouraged us to have even more meaningful conversations about how we can make our country a more inclusive and a more equitable place.”

Now, the Tories are exploiting that, with Poilievre hosting a petition on his website called “Stop the Great Reset.”

The Conservatives are banking on people becoming angry with the Liberals’ perceived failures to manage the pandemic.

But aside from the Conservatives’ own base, it’s far from clear the rest of Canadians feel the same way. Public opinion polls, in fact, for now, suggest they don’t.

But O’Toole’s strategy will see the Tories drum the issue harder, painting the Liberal government as incompetent.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has tried another strategy, seeking a partnership on mutually agreed goals. With his party at 15 per cent in the polls, that strategy doesn’t seem to have helped him either.

Time will tell if O’Toole’s efforts will pay off — or if he gets branded as yet another angry Conservative.

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