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Season 7 Premiere – I Can’t Believe What You Did This Summer

On the Season 7 Premiere of Political Traction host Amanda Galbraith sits down with Marieke Walsh, a reporter with the Globe and Mail and a good friend of the podcast. The two unpack the summer that was: how a global pandemic, changes in senior federal cabinet members and an unlikely relationship has shaped a political landscape that looks much different than it did 12 months ago. Then, the two go head-to-head in our rapid fire round to discuss three very important topics: politics, wine and sports.

The road to recovery

This article was originally published in the Institute of Corporate Directors’ Director Journal in September 2020.

As Canada reopens and rebuilds, we need leaders who will reject old norms and bolster public confidence by embracing new responsibilities, Jaime Watt writes.

On New Year’s Eve, 1999, John Koskinen, the chair of U.S. president Bill Clinton’s Council on Y2K Conversion, boarded a plane bound for New York City. The move was a well-timed stunt to assure a nervous public that global technology systems would not come crashing down because computers had successfully been switched to a four-digit year from the two-digit format the older software used.

Koskinen was certain that after years of planning and billions of dollars of federally funded mitigation efforts, the new millennium would not bring the mass blackouts and damage to critical infrastructure that many had anticipated. He set out to calm Americans’ worst fears and prove that total system failure had been avoided. There would be no apocalypse, and Koskinen would be in the air as the clock struck midnight, to prove that any risks of transportation collapse, among other fears, had been effectively eliminated.

With this act of certainty, the mastermind behind the United States’ Y2K disaster-avoidance plan made a crucial move toward restoring the confidence of the American public. At a time when perpetual doubt and uncertainty instilled widespread fear, Koskinen understood a crucial tenet of crisis communications. Beyond simply steering the country to safety, he had to prove that it was safe for people to engage with this brave new world and bolster their confidence in the measures he had taken. So, he boarded a flight.

Leading like it’s 1999

We find ourselves in a similar situation today to that momentous New Year’s Eve. Much like the lead-up to the Y2K “crisis”, the coronavirus pandemic has cast uncertainty and dread — albeit more valid than in 1999. Many politicians and institutions around the globe have worked tirelessly to keep the virus at bay, and it seems that we may finally begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But at this critical juncture, the prescription calls for bold leadership that can bolster public confidence at a time when distrust of both private and public institutions is abundant. We need leaders who realize that it’s time to reject old norms and take into account the interests of stakeholders in new and essential ways. We long for a John Koskinen of our own.

In any crisis, the leadership’s capacity to reclaim stability is vital. Once the crisis has been handled, how will a new sense of normalcy be reached? And how will the leadership survey the changed landscape and adapt its approach accordingly? While we may not yet have these answers with regard to Covid-19, history teaches us that the principles that guide these actions are paramount.

Looking beyond the crisis

As directors, we endeavour to ensure our organizations will remain afloat and competitive on the other side of a crisis. This pandemic has certainly forced many of us to broaden the parameters within which we should be acting and has forced us to chart a course which just months ago would have seemed unthinkable. It has driven us to a new assessment of our purpose and the reasons for our actions.

Re-examining the limited social responsibilities of business is one of the most obvious changes that has emerged from this crisis. Directors must acknowledge that public expectations of corporations have evolved and their purpose can no longer be to solely maximize profits and increase shareholder value.

Economist Milton Friedman’s old canard that the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits rings hollow in the new world in which we find ourselves. This means we must now work toward a more cumbersome end. By laying bare long-overlooked injustices, this pandemic has forced us to acknowledge the inequalities that have been perpetuated in well-meaning institutions, from corporations and government agencies to not-for-profit organizations.

It is our new responsibility as directors to steward our institutions in response to these social concerns. Boardrooms need confident leaders who will set a new precedent and redefine corporate norms. Our role will not only be to reinspire confidence in the economy, but to do so with intention. In other words, we cannot lead for the sake of leading. We must act resolutely toward a new purpose.

Expectations of the private sector have been shifting since before Covid-19. In redefining their purpose, corporations will be held responsible for helping to address exclusionary social structures, profound inequalities and other systemic issues. The Black Lives Matter movement has been a notable catalyst in drawing society’s attention to these problems. Beyond shedding light on structural racism, it has given life to discussions of other entrenched issues of inequality, including issues of gender disparity and economic inequality. Thanks to the protests and grass roots organization of these marginalized communities, conventional stakeholders are finally acknowledging that this isn’t some sort of fringe cause.

Evolving capitalism

As we emerge from the pandemic – whenever that may be – ensuring our organizations are purpose-driven and newly focused on positive contributions for all stakeholders will require support and direction. What’s more, guaranteeing that corporations are progressing beyond virtue signalling, by choosing to mirror their words with appropriate action, will be essential if we are to chart a truly new course. Leading this charge will be organizations and directors who are committed to serious action. People and leaders who, like John Koskinen, understand that leadership of a recovery goes beyond reassurances and planning. It requires uncomfortable and sometimes performative action to prove what form the future might take.

The current landscape signals that capitalism is changing, one way or the other. Boards have an important role to play in meeting this evolution by helping organizations redefine, strengthen and advance the scope of their purpose and values. This change is sure to bring uncertainty, but with it, opportunities.

As the recovery process continues, we cannot shirk the responsibility for the changes needed in our society and economy. We need to embrace them, in the appropriate context for our organizations, and accept the challenge of an evolved capitalism, to help humanity confront the demands, fears and expectations of our post-pandemic world.

Erin O’Toole’s political, policy and pandemic challenges

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of Policy Magazine.

After a marathon vote-counting drama that saw conventional wisdom overturned, Erin O’Toole was elected leader of the Conservative Party of Canada on the third ballot by a clear margin of 57 to 43 percent over Peter MacKay. The new leader faces unique challenges unforeseen just months ago. With the COVID-19 pandemic still taking Canadian lives and upending our economy, politics and governance, O’Toole becomes Opposition Leader at a moment unprecedented outside of wartime.

To the victor belong the spoils. But also—as Erin O’Toole is about to learn—the toil.

O’Toole has won the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in what was surely the strangest partisan competition in our history. New and relatively unknown candidates, the impact of COVID-19 on campaigning, and the persistent hanging-on of the outgoing leader all contributed to a contest about as interesting as the live stream footage of the party’s empty ballot vault in Ottawa.

With a determined effort and a persistent focus on down-ballot support from social conservatives, O’Toole has earned his win. But with that triumph come serious challenges—challenges that go well beyond the usual uphill battle facing a new leader.

By now, it is a trope to point out just how much the world has changed in 2020. But still, consider how things looked when O’Toole threw his hat in the ring to be leader in January. Canadians were focused on Iran’s downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane carrying 57 Canadians. We were contemplating which high-end area code in Canada Prince Harry and Meghan Markle might land in. Simply put, we had no idea what was coming.

But the world today looks very different, and it will take some time for our federal political parties to adjust. Now that Erin O’Toole is leading the Conservatives, what challenges does he face in the party, in the House, and across the country—and how should he address them?

First of all, the party.

While this race has proven far less divisive and the party less conflicted than in 2017, there is no denying the challenge that O’Toole faces. The ever-present divisions between social conservatives and the rest of the party have quieted down, but by no means have they disappeared. O’Toole needs a big- tent approach that brings Conservative supporters onboard while acknowledging the essential need to modernize and align with Canadians’ contemporary priorities.

Managing this uneasy alliance is always difficult, and some leaders have fared better than others. The reality is that while O’Toole owes his victory to social conservatives, he is not one of them. The truth is O’Toole has always been a progressive and so he will have to work to meaningfully address their concerns while not forgetting the three quarters of members who opted for a moderate, modern party.

He seemed to understand that in his victory speech, when he established a land speed record for distancing himself from social conservative allies and staked out a big blue tent.

Especially if there is an impending federal election, it will be quite a balancing act for O’Toole to conclusively put to bed social issues like equal marriage and reproductive rights, as Andrew Scheer was neither able nor seriously willing to do. It has become increasingly awkward to watch Conservatives across Canada contort themselves around these issues.

Andrew Scheer’s refusal to properly address climate change was undoubtedly a factor in his political demise. As Canadians overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change, it’s no longer feasible for the Conservative Party to ignore their clarion call for some form of climate action. O’Toole ran with a plan to reduce emissions in Canada and around the world, but he would be wise to promptly begin working with other Conservatives to come up with a serious alternative to the Liberals’ carbon tax.

In this area, O’Toole has an advantage over his competitors. He provided a refreshing dose of realism on the campaign trail by acknowledging that the Tories won’t win another election without a real climate policy that speaks to Canadians. And he’s right. We simply cannot afford to lose another election by refusing to address the urgency of a planetary, existential threat.

But 2020 has also brought unprecedented, rather than familiar, challenges to the party. As COVID-19 has brought us further apart through social distancing measures, the typical vehicles for assembling supporters and reaching donors are no longer an option. Tactics will need to adapt, and quickly at that. There will be no mass conventions to rally party members, no glad-handing with donors or influential meetings of minds in stuffy rooms. But O’Toole has already figured that out. Rather than being stymied by the restrictions of the virus over his campaign, he figured out how to use it to his advantage. A judo move, if you will. He quickly mastered the art of Zoom. His campaign team used technology skillfully and O’Toole found his footing in a whole new way of campaigning.

So, he has an advantage over Justin Trudeau in that he’s already figured out how to campaign outside of traditional channels—and win. In his leadership race, he Zoom-called folks in every low-turnout riding, and he’s sure to do the same in a federal election.

We know there will be challenges for O’Toole across the board, and the House is no exception. No one doubts O’Toole’s bona fides when it comes to governing and parliamentary procedure—he’s been an MP for eight years and has served as a cabinet minister. Unlike MacKay or Leslyn Lewis, he also has the authority and platform provided by a seat in the House of Commons, starting on day one.

Conservatives are also eager to have their leader on the Hill—at least virtually—so that he can champion the party’s efforts to keep the government in check. For months, the job has fallen to Pierre Poilievre as shadow minister of finance. But with a new leader elected in a time of national—and global—crisis, it is high time for the leader of the Opposition to fulfil the very essence of the role by providing oversight and acting as a check to the government’s impulses. I look forward to Erin O’Toole’s maiden question period, as do, I’m sure, many Canadians who feel that an effective foil to Justin Trudeau has been sorely lacking in the green chamber.

Erin O’Toole will also have to reckon with a Parliament that has changed in remarkable ways since he first took office in 2012. The Bloc Québécois are back to stay it seems, and the new Tory leader will need to get better acquainted with Yves-François Blanchet and his colleagues in relatively short order, if he is going to have any say in making the weather.

But aside from issues in the party and the swift action needed in the House, O’Toole faces challenges across the country, not least of which being exactly how he will grapple with the role of Opposition leader during a global pandemic and the vicissitudes that entails.

First, he will need to reckon with a new, post-pandemic politics. Social attitudes in Canada and around the world have changed, largely in response to the grave inequalities and injustices revealed by COVID-19. The issues, too, have changed along with the tone of conversation. So have Canadians’ expectations of their leaders and parties. Here, again, O’Toole will need to address these challenges, in part by reconciling his longstanding identity as a moderate voice from Ontario, with his recent courtship of the party’s right-wing.

The final and, it seems to me, most significant challenge O’Toole faces is really how to “own” his role as leader of the Opposition while preparing to contest a federal election.

I believe that Canadians are hoping for more than just a candidate for prime minister. They want someone who will hold Justin Trudeau to account for his actions. Someone to remind them what the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition is meant to do: contest fiscal overreach, press the government on their response to this pandemic and ensure that the mad rush of COVID legislation does not go without serious oversight.

If O’Toole can effectively do that while whirring up the party apparatus for a fight, he stands a real shot at convincing Canadians of the imperative for a Conservative government. And if the NDP and Bloc are eager to play ball, it could be as early as next fall.

It will be gruelling work, but his task couldn’t be more essential—for Conservatives and more importantly, for all Canadians.