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Second wave presents big opportunity for O’Toole’s Conservatives

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on November 29, 2020.

As the country plunges into the second wave of COVID-19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has returned to hosting reporters from his favourite spot: Rideau Cottage. And why wouldn’t he? After all, it’s the location that, early in the pandemic, helped drive some of his highest approval numbers.

Back then, the prime minister and his colleagues correctly sensed that a good crisis was a terrible thing to waste. They rose to the occasion with lavish spending — to the tune of $225 billion — and with an equally lavish communications strategy.

Sadly, the same could not be said for then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

Amid the fear and panic that marked COVID’s first wave, Scheer never quite managed to strike the right note. In his defence, wars and pandemics make life difficult at Stornoway. How to attack the government’s missteps, without undermining public health? How to calibrate criticism so as not to appear churlish and irresponsible at a time of national crisis?

But Erin O’Toole has now arrived, having prevailed in a Conservative leadership race that saw the party attract more than 100,000 new members. And he has brought with him a new strategy: tack towards the centre, and appeal explicitly to blue-collar, unionized workers.

That’s why the second wave of this pandemic may well be as much an opportunity for O’Toole as the first was for Trudeau.

With Ontario and much of the country back into lockdown, there is truly only one issue that voters care about. And that plays to O’Toole’s advantage. It provides him an opportunity to build a big blue tent, without having to worry about pesky social issues which chronically divide his party and keep it out of power.

So the question becomes, where should O’Toole and the Conservatives focus their criticism? My suggestion: government competence.

Nearly a quarter-trillion dollars has gone out the door in a matter of nine months. If there are not multiple instances of mismanagement, incompetence, abuse and fraud in all that, I will eat the newsprint this column is printed upon.

Early examples are already emerging. Take, for example, this week’s case of the Madan family. Between April and June, the Madans are accused of having stolen $11 million of COVID relief funds. “Money was just being shovelled out the door with little or no accountability,” one source told the Star.

The episode does not inspire confidence. And it provides an opening for conservatives to shift the discussion to ground where they can win: their ability as prudent fiscal managers.

However, even as the pandemic presents these kind of opportunities, it will be challenging to break through a grim daily news cycle and to be seen as contributing meaningfully to the country at a time of this generation’s greatest need.

True political success will require an unconventional approach that rises to meet this singular moment.

So here is an idea: we know that so many people are hurting and so many communities are struggling across the country. Why not have the Conservative Party mobilize their members, including the 100,000 new members who signed up to support O’Toole or other leadership candidates, and organize a national day of community service? A national neighbour-to-neighbour effort to help those who are suffering alone and isolated. A program that would appeal to all of our better angels just at a time when we, as a country, need it the most.

And here is another one. The conservatives raised a record-breaking $5.6 million in donations last quarter. How about they donate the party’s entire fundraising proceeds for December to a charity that has been on the front lines of this struggle, like the United Way or Centraide?

And if I were Erin O’Toole, I would announce all of this from the front steps of Stornoway. After all, we maintain an official residence for the Opposition Leader — in part, as an expression of the value we place on dissent, even in the gravest of crises.

During this long, dark winter of the second wave, all of us — individuals, companies, organizations and communities — will find it impossible to do “business as usual.”

Why should the Conservatives be any different?

Closed for Business (w/ Dan Kelly)

This week host Amanda Galbraith sits down with Dan Kelly, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business to unpack the impact of lockdown measures for small businesses across Canada. Then the two go head-to-head in our rapid fire round to discuss the potential demolition of the Rogers Centre, Black Friday and daylight savings time.

How mental health and the pandemic are affecting investors’ decisions

Navigator Managing Principal Anne Kilpatrick outlines a research study developed in partnership with Bridgehouse Asset Managers that investigates the role that mental health plays in the financial advice relationship. This article initially appeared in the Globe and Mail on November 26th, co-authored by Carol Lynde, President and Chief Executive Officer of Bridgehouse Asset Managers.

The promise of a vaccine highlights unique challenges for our time

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on November 22, 2020.

Alexander Pope has long promised us that “hope springs eternal,” but in Canada we know we are entering a less pleasant and more dreary phase of the pandemic which has upended the lives of so many.

Much of the summer — and for a time, the fall — brought good news of case counts stabilizing, businesses reopening and ways to safely spend time with family and friends.

Regrettably, those times were not to last. And so now, we ride a carousel of bad news turning faster and faster as we spin into winter.

The rules around dining out have ebbed from encouraging to disconcerting. Parents and guardians with children in school have been bewildered by the rules intended to ensure a safe learning environment. Talks of cancelled holidays and celebrations stretching into the new year are particularly upsetting to many.

But at the core of our beings, we know that these changes are necessary. That, until we get a vaccine, we are not close to having this virus beat.

And so, this week’s news was greeted with outsized hope: potentially viable COVID-19 vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer, respectively. The news bolstered markets. It even changed the channel on some of the more worrying developments in Donald Trump’s “Minsk on the Potomac,” as the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser dubbed his pantomime of an authoritarian power grab.

But for all the good news from the field of science, the field of political science threw a flag on the play.

That’s because, from the perspective of public opinion, the promise of a successful COVID vaccine seems a double-edged sword.

For some time, we have allowed distrust in institutions, and especially the government, to grow unchecked. One of the results is that conspiracy theorism has become the order of the day. And making matters worse is the separation triggered by shutdowns, which has further reinforced the sense that our individual realities are miles apart.

This shift, along with the rise of both the anti-vax movement and misinformation generally, poses a singular threat to the potential success of a COVID vaccine. We know the efficacy of a vaccine relies on significant uptake among our communities. Problem is, there remains a large swath of Canadians who balk at the idea of a government-distributed vaccine.

Maybe the way around this problem is for the government to get out of the way and let the private sector step up.

Ticketmaster is just one example of a company that is preparing for the eventuality of a vaccine, announcing last week their plans to verify customers’ vaccination status before permitting attendance. When they are allowed to reopen, many restaurants will no doubt devise a similar system of compliance.

Skepticism will abound if the government mandates vaccines, but nothing will stir people to a jab sooner than the promise of access to their favourite haunts and activities. What’s more, if a vaccine is free (or cheap) and accessible to every single Canadian, firms will be well within their rights to implement these policies.

At the same time, a vaccine’s distribution will rely on a level of global coordination that has not been executed — or even pursued — in some time. Joe Biden’s inauguration will not immediately grease the gears of international institutions and alliances that haven’t been tested practically since Donald Trump took office. Nor will Inauguration Day entirely reverse the retreat of America from its position as a co-ordinator of global health responses.

And this is where government has a clear role: to ensure that Canadians have the vaccines we need, distributed to where we need them.

At the end of the day, Canadians will need to take the vaccine.

While this winter will be long and difficult, the sacrifices we make now until vaccines are ready will make it easier for us to return to a form of “normal.”

A normal includes the simple things like a return to dinners out with friends, movies with family and other rituals that bring us together and out into our community.

For that, I will happily get a vaccine. Eagerly, in fact.

I hope you will too.