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One of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that a healthy federal democracy can’t function at its best, or in the best interests of Canadians, if the governing party is allowed to run roughshod over Parliament.

This has been the case in Ottawa for a year now, and it’s odd as hell. The Trudeau government is a minority, but it’s managed to control the agenda with an ease not even a majority government could pull off.

The Liberals adjourned Parliament for most of 2020, with the complicity of the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, and then prorogued it in August when the WE Charity scandal threatened to bring too much heat on them.

In between, they brought in a suite of emergency programs costing hundreds of billions of dollars. The programs – CERB, wage subsidies, tax credits, tax deferrals etc. – were needed, but were conveniently spared the normal oversight of Parliament. And the Liberals haven’t tabled a budget in two years.

To further compound matters, the Official Opposition spent most of last year with a lame-duck leader.

Former Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer announced his resignation in December of 2019, pending the naming of a replacement. He’d managed to reduce the Liberals to a minority in that year’s election, but failed to defeat them.

The pandemic subsequently forced the Conservatives to delay their leadership convention. The new leader, Erin O’Toole, was only chosen last August.

Mr. O’Toole has since had a shaky start. He sold himself during the leadership race as a “true blue Conservative” in order to fend off two socially conservative rivals, and is now under fire as he tries to move back to the centre.

He expelled one of those rivals, Derek Sloan, from the party on the tenuous grounds Mr. Sloan accepted a donation from a white supremacist. (Mr. Sloan had no knowledge of the donation until it was used against him.)

He also made a point, after the storming of Capitol Hill in Washington, of stressing that he intends to lead “a moderate, pragmatic, mainstream party” that welcomes “all Canadians, regardless of race, religion, economic standing, education, or sexual orientation.”

All of which leads to this weekend. The Conservatives are holding an online convention that begins in earnest on Friday, and anti-abortion advocates and other social conservatives say they intend to hold Mr. O’Toole to the positions he took in the leadership race. They also hope to elect like-minded people to the party’s national council.

The convention could be Mr. O’Toole’s last chance, before an election likely to come this year, to cement his image as a leader who appeals to a broad range of Canadians, instead of to a narrow base of a relative handful of party activists.

It’s critical that he do so. Parliament needs a viable government-in-waiting to keep the Trudeau government in check. For democratic politics to work, there has to be an alternative to the Liberals – one that can not only win an election, but also be trusted to govern.

Mr. O’Toole’s speech on Friday evening will be the key to this. He needs to deliver a resounding but simple message: that the Conservatives, if elected, will be responsible, rational and ethical caretakers of your money, your country and your government.

That’s it. That’s the message.

It would stand in contrast to the Trudeau government, which is vulnerable to criticism that it is sometimes more devoted to reciting politically correct talking points than to delivering on key issues.

Over the course of this pandemic, Canadians have learned just how much government is needed. But they’ve also been dismayed to discover that many simple tasks have proved to be beyond the capacity – or competence – of Canadian governments.

That is all that Conservatives should be focused on.

The Conservative Party that Canada needs, and which Canadians will vote for, will be in the image of this country: pragmatic, responsible, honest, hardworking, efficient.

You’d think that Mr. O’Toole, who has been both a decorated military officer and a blue-chip Bay Street lawyer, would be able to embody those values. Perhaps all he needs to do this weekend is be himself.

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