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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Jan. 6. When it comes to the greatest crisis to face the country in decades, the prime-minister-in-waiting has been either absent from the discussion, or making poor choices.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

What is the role of the official opposition in Canada’s Parliament? The straightforward answer is that it is to ensure, as the House of Commons website puts it, “that legislation is carefully considered, and that differing views on important initiatives are publicly expressed and defended.”

But it’s more than that. It’s a watchdog role, making sure the government plays by the book, and holding it to account for mistakes, scandals and broken promises in Question Period, on committees and in the media.

Above all, the official opposition serves as a “government-in-waiting,” and its leader as a ready replacement for the sitting prime minister. If the leader of the opposition is widely seen as a better candidate for the top job, that will cause more anxiety for a government than any number of Question Period zingers or sharply worded tweets.

Which means it’s safe to say that Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole lately isn’t keeping Prime Minister Justin Trudeau awake at night.

Some of that is owing to Mr. Trudeau’s sidelining of Parliament for the past two years. He has deliberately minimized the scrutiny of the House of Commons, and even delayed its return for two months after the September election.

But beyond the Liberals’ tactical avoidance of accountability is the issue of Mr. O’Toole’s performance as Conservative Leader, especially of late.

His biggest misstep has been his messaging on the COVID-19 pandemic. While Canadians are focused on getting through the latest wave, Mr. O’Toole last week used his podium to ask for understanding and accommodation for the roughly one-in-10 adults who are unvaccinated, and who are filling up hospital beds at a rate that far exceeds their proportion of the population.

The current crisis would be much less serious if those Canadians had stepped forward and gotten their jabs last year, and yet Mr. O’Toole is serving as their advocate, rather than as the advocate of the thousands of vaccinated people who’ve had elective surgeries postponed, and of the vaccinated parents whose vaccinated children can’t go to school to see their vaccinated teachers, and the vaccinated business owners who’ve had to shut their doors to their vaccinated customers.

When it comes to the greatest crisis to face the country in decades, the prime-minister-in-waiting has been either absent from the discussion, or making poor choices.

Mr. O’Toole didn’t do much better last week when he posted a video on Twitter accusing Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault of wanting to “end fossil fuel usage in 18 months.”

What Mr. Guilbeault was talking about was bringing in legislation to phase out fossil fuel subsidies within 18 months.. That’s a whole other thing, and Mr. O’Toole knows it. And yet he still made the ludicrous claim that the Liberals – who, readers may recall, bought an oil pipeline and are spending billions of dollars expanding it – are “phasing out Canadian energy in two years,” as he put it in a press release.

These latest missteps compounded the fact that Mr. O’Toole faced a series of caucus rebellions after the election in September, all of them led by the party’s fringiest elements. He escaped intact, but an Abacus poll of 2,200 Canadians this month found that he has by far the lowest approval rating among party leaders, at just 21 per cent.

This is not his finest hour. There is plenty for him to criticize in the Liberal government, and lots of important issues that need serious attention, including the question of whether China tried to meddle in the 2021 election and targeted some Conservative candidates.

But instead of doing that, or tapping into Canadians’ legitimate worries about everything from the pandemic to inflation to out-of-control housing costs, Mr. O’Toole has been generating attention for wondering what more we can do for the unvaccinated minority, and for pretending that the Liberals intend to turn off your gas furnace some time in 2023.

As we said, Mr. Trudeau isn’t looking over his shoulder and seeing a threat. No, Mr. O’Toole’s tone-deaf positions of late have probably been helpful to the Liberals.

And that’s not good for Canada. Parliament needs a strong and credible opposition leader, one surefooted enough to keep the government on its toes. Mr. O’Toole doesn’t need to have the answers, but if he wants to be taken seriously, he needs to at least start asking the right questions.

Clarification: This article has been updated because although an interview in The Narwhal at one point quoted Mr. Gulbeault referring to bringing in measures to phase out “fossil fuel” in 18 months, he made clear several times in the interview that he was speaking about phasing out “fossil fuel subsidies.”

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