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Conservative leader Erin O'Toole rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 24, 2021.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

On Tuesday, the Conservative Party tabled a rather adorable motion calling on the federal government to deliver a “clear data-driven plan to support safely, gradually and permanently lifting COVID-19 restrictions.” It had all the might of a confused message-board troll demanding to know why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to shut down Ontario schools after Christmas.

The federal government’s plan quite clearly begins and ends with continuing to procure and deliver COVID-19 vaccines (since its border control and hotel quarantine requirements are mostly theatre, after all), which leaves the provinces to figure out when and how they might ease COVID-19 restrictions amid a burgeoning third wave. The Conservatives could have made the argument that, say, Ottawa should dispatch Canadian Forces personnel to aid in the rapid administration of vaccines or should have provided more financial resources for premiers to ramp up testing and tracing efforts. But instead, the Opposition tabled a motion that essentially said “Do something!” and scurried back to its benches, as if ideas and insight are matters reserved only for the party that has currently formed government.

In calling for a federal re-opening plan, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole noted that there have been more overdose deaths in B.C. this year than there have been COVID-19 ones. It is unclear whether Mr. O’Toole believes that loosening pandemic restrictions will meaningfully curb a deeply complex and persistent social crisis, or whether this is the party’s signal that it is coming around to the idea that drug abuse is a health care issue, not a criminal one; at present, it is obviously little more than an attack line.

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This week, Mr. O’Toole also sent a letter to Mr. Trudeau that warned about the stress of the country’s ballooning debt load. “I note that this historic and massive increase in our country’s debt also includes $100-billion for additional stimulus measures,” he wrote. “Despite repeated requests for you to explain how, when and where this money will be spent, you have refused to be transparent about your plans.” Conservatives have routinely criticized the government’s pandemic relief measures as slow and insufficient, particularly as they relate to small businesses, while at the same time suggesting that the Liberals have massively overspent on COVID-19 relief programs.

Mr. O’Toole’s recovery plan, meanwhile, includes a foggy scheme to erase Canada’s historic deficit in 10 years – somehow – and restoring 1 million jobs lost to the pandemic (echoing the promise of the Trudeau government) through incentives for small businesses and other measures to be announced at some later date. This level of specificity is in line with the Conservatives’ climate plans; Mr. O’Toole stated his belief in climate change, but the party members rejected a resolution that included a line acknowledging it at their weekend convention. Mr. O’Toole has vowed that his party’s to-be-determined climate-change plan will be “serious” and “comprehensive,” though it will not include a carbon tax – a consumption tax that Conservatives would normally find preferable to other big-government climate-change schemes – mostly on ideological grounds.

There are plenty of reasons, some good, why opposition parties tend to stay mum on proposed policy alternatives until close to or in an election campaign. The federal New Democrats have had more than a couple of their ideas cribbed by Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals, who now get to bask in the credit for working to enact a national pharmacare plan, for example. It also takes time (and money, and polling) to develop comprehensive policy proposals, and parties want to have something to announce to build momentum during the campaign.

But the next election, whenever it will be, will likely occur in a climate distinct from the ones of the past. We will ostensibly be much closer to pandemic recovery, meaning there will be something of a general aura of optimism – even euphoria – in the air. Indeed, by then, whatever stumbles the federal government experienced in procuring vaccines early relative to peer nations might well be forgotten – or at least obscured by the joy of being able to eat in a restaurant without the gentle hum of anxiety in the background – leaving Mr. O’Toole with the challenge of getting Canadians to pay attention to a promise of change when things, compared to the recent past, will seem pretty good.

That’s why the Conservatives do themselves no favours now by acting as glorified online trolls with few ideas of their own at a time when Canadians are perhaps most receptive to hearing them. If now is not the time for the party to show itself as a serious, intelligent government-in-waiting, when is?

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