Chairman's Desk

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?