September is here, and with it will come the first big test for the Conservative Party’s new Leader, Erin O’Toole. How he handles it will tell Canadians a lot about the opposition politician who has the best chance of one day replacing Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister.
The test will come in the form of a Speech from the Throne on Sept. 23, in which Mr. Trudeau will lay out his minority government’s COVID-19 recovery plan.
The Trudeau Liberals prorogued Parliament on Aug. 18 and announced the Throne Speech in a cynical move designed to bring Parliamentary committee hearings into the WE Charity scandal to a sudden stop. This was nakedly hypocritical, given that Mr. Trudeau vowed he would never prorogue Parliament to get out of a political jam.
But the Throne Speech gambit is also partly the Liberals’ attempt to define Mr. O’Toole to Canadians before he gets a chance to do it himself.
Their aim is clear: to cast the new Conservative Leader as an anachronism who reflexively puts fiscal restraint ahead of the need to spend emergency funds on the recovery, and keep Canadians afloat.
Mr. Trudeau threw down that gauntlet when he prorogued Parliament. In announcing the Throne Speech, he made it explicit that his government intends to keep borrowing money, even after the $343-billion deficit it has run up this year in its response to the pandemic.
“Advanced economies understand that, with interest rates so low, the costs of borrowing are just as low for stimulating the recovery,” Mr. Trudeau said. “Governments, like that of Canada, that have a solid fiscal position, must invest to help citizens get through this crisis.”
Mr. Trudeau said he would seize the moment to spend more on health care and pandemic preparedness, and hinted at “bold solutions” designed to make Canada “more fair.” He also said his government would not raise taxes during the recovery, which means any new spending next year will be paid for with new debt.
As well, choosing to unveil his plan in a Throne Speech makes it subject to a confidence motion. Defeating the motion would trigger a general election.
This is the bind Mr. O’Toole is in. He could support the Throne Speech on the grounds that the times call for more emergency borrowing and spending. But that would come at a cost. While it’s not known exactly what the Liberals will propose, it is sure to involve bigger government in Ottawa – exactly the sort of thing the Conservative Party is opposed to in principle.
If Mr. O’Toole and his caucus vote against the confidence motion but it still passes with the help of the NDP or the Bloc Québécois, or they abstain from voting, the Liberals will be able to brand them as cold-hearted and hopelessly out of touch with a changed country.
And if the Tories vote against the motion and it is defeated, Mr. O’Toole will find himself in a general election against a Liberal Party that is leading in the polls. He would likely come under fire for forcing an election during the pandemic, hurting his party’s chances.
What’s a rookie Conservative Leader to do?
This page has supported the Liberals’ handling of the pandemic crisis. Most Canadians support it, too: 88 per cent, in fact, according to the Pew Research Center. This flood of emergency spending, and its success at fending off the worst impacts of the pandemic, have given impetus to the idea that Ottawa can do more to promote welfare, and to lower poverty and inequality.
Mr. O’Toole is in a tight fix. As Conservative Leader, he will be plying his trade when fiscal restraint for its own sake is seen by many as out of touch with reality.
But if an expansionist federal government is inevitable, that means there will be greater need than ever for an Opposition Leader willing to question the choices the Liberals make.
The minority Trudeau government is primed to spend billions of new borrowed dollars, albeit at rock-bottom interest rates, on programs designed to protect its left flank from the NDP and maintain its control of Parliament.
Mr. O’Toole might not be able to stand in the way of Mr. Trudeau’s plans for the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic but, if he is up to the job, he can expose the cynical calculation behind the agenda of a Liberal government embroiled in an ethics scandal.
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