New Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says the Liberal government’s recovery plan is too narrowly focused on a green economy and will leave out major employers in sectors such as energy, manufacturing and Canada’s small businesses.
In his first interview with a newspaper since winning the party leadership late last month, Mr. O’Toole outlined his economic priorities to The Globe and Mail in his Ottawa office, as he prepares for Parliament’s return and a possible fall election.
He said he wants to erase Canada’s deficit in about a decade if his party forms government, a timeline he said can be accomplished without giving credence to Liberal characterizations of a Conservative “bogeyman” who imposes deep spending cuts.
He also called for increased immigration through family reunification as part of a COVID-19 recovery effort to make up for the temporary decrease in economic immigration, while also providing families with child-care alternatives. He defended his commitment to addressing climate change, even though he opposes a carbon tax, and also listed his support for ending the ban on gay men donating blood as an example of how he brings a new inclusive approach to the Conservative leadership.
Mr. O’Toole’s victory comes shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament, allowing the Liberals to deliver a Sept. 23 Throne Speech that Mr. Trudeau says will outline an ambitious plan to place climate change at the centre of Canada’s economic recovery after the deep, initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. O’Toole said his short-term priority is to consult his caucus and Canadian business leaders on policy ideas for the next election campaign, which he said he is ready to fight but not looking to trigger.
Mr. Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, is part of a group of environmentally focused policy advocates, called the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, that is calling for billions in federal stimulus spending in areas such as energy retrofits for buildings, electric-vehicle incentives and clean-energy promotion. Recent public comments from Mr. Trudeau and his ministers suggest that is the general direction the government is heading as it prepares a new agenda.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has said the Liberal government’s plan will “build back better,” echoing a tagline used by U.S. Democrats, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and others in recent months who champion a climate-focused recovery plan.
Mr. O’Toole said he supports environmental measures, but that a postpandemic economic recovery plan must have a broader focus. He pointed to “heartbreaking” stories of Canadian immigrant families who have seen their previously successful small businesses, such as restaurants, go under during the pandemic.
“What is building back better to them?” he asked. “We can’t pick or choose what parts of our economy Ottawa likes. … I think we have to have every cylinder firing.”
Mr. O’Toole’s platform called for ending the federal carbon tax and reversing two Liberal bills: C-48, banning oil tankers off the northern B.C. coast, and C-69, which changed the review process for large projects. The two bills were strongly opposed by Canada’s energy sector.
Last month, Mr. O’Toole posted a photo of himself jogging with his son while wearing a black T-shirt that expressed his love for Canadian oil and gas. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney often wears shirts with the same message. During his first phone conversation with Mr. Trudeau after winning the Conservative leadership, Mr. O’Toole raised Western alienation as an issue.
The Liberals are clearly hoping that while Mr. O’Toole’s positions on energy and the environment may be popular to some, there are more votes to be gained with an aggressive policy focus on climate change and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Mr. O’Toole said he worked on environmental files such as ethanol fuel and wind power as a lawyer and held an environmental business luncheon series before entering politics.
“I have more experience in the green economy than anyone in that Liberal caucus. I care about it. But we don’t put all of our chips in it,” he said. “With the Trudeau government, it is all about rhetoric and ideology and not about a practical approach.”
The Conservative Leader’s platform also calls for a review of Canada’s tax system and a reversal of controversial small-business tax changes adopted by the Trudeau government. In Thursday’s interview, the Ontario MP said promoting private-sector growth is part of his plan to shrink the deficit.
“What I think we need to do is get [to] balance over a decade or so,” Mr. O’Toole said in reference to the deficit. “We’re going to come up with a plan that shows there is no bogeyman with the Conservatives, that we’re going to try and get back to a balanced budget in two or three years or something like that.
“We know this [pandemic] has been a shock, but we also know that economic growth is as important as controlling spending. And our caucus, we’re going to talk about that. And I would prefer more time to hear from industry, to hear from small business, before an election comes and we contrast visions for the future. Mr. Trudeau seems to be gunning for an election. We’ll be ready if there’s one. But it’s certainly not my intention.”
Emergency federal spending had already increased the projected size of this year’s federal deficit to $343.2-billion at the time of the July 8 fiscal snapshot. Major new spending announcements announced since then, including $37-billion in new income-support measures announced last month, suggest the deficit is likely approaching $400-billion. This year’s deficit is expected to push the federal debt beyond the $1-trillion threshold, up from $685-billion heading into the pandemic.
The Conservative Party has long advocated for balanced budgets, but the fact that large deficits by countries around the world have not yet triggered higher interest rates and widespread public-debt concerns has some economists and politicians questioning whether past warnings about deficit spending were misplaced. Mr. O’Toole said he doesn’t accept those arguments.
“If interest rates change, we are in for bad times,” he said, predicting that in such a scenario, the federal government would struggle to fund core programs such as health care transfers to the provinces and Old Age Security.
Mr. O’Toole said in his leadership platform that the country needs to maintain an annual growth rate of 3 per cent. When asked Thursday how immigration would contribute to that goal, he said it is “critical” to the success of the country. Mr. O’Toole is particularly interested in reuniting families in Canada with their relatives who wish to immigrate here to join them.
“That family reunification piece, we should accelerate if it allows a family to keep their business operating – having a mother or an aunt, or an uncle, or a brother, or a sister come over to help,” Mr. O’Toole said, adding that is where Canada’s immigration system could respond quickly.
Family reunification allows recent immigrants and Canadians to be reunited with members of their family. Family members living abroad can be sponsored by a relative or spouse living in Canada. According to the Immigration department, people who can be sponsored by family members include spouses or common-law partners, dependent children, parents, grandparents, children adopted abroad and, in special circumstances, other relatives. The category generally accounts for about 27 per cent of Canada’s annual admissions.
Mr. O’Toole said he has been advocating for families whose separation has been prolonged because of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic forced visa offices around the globe to close, slowing the application process and keeping families in limbo.
“I know the system had to grind to a halt because people, not only in Canada and immigration, refugee bureaucracy, but our consulates and our embassies were all closed … so we all knew there would be a delay,” Mr. O’Toole said.
He said he has urged Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino to accelerate family reunification, or at least give families some predictability in terms of when they may be together again.
“A lot of them just don’t know how long the delay is and that’s excruciating for families,” he said.
Mike Jones, a spokesperson for the Immigration Minister, said this has been a hard time for families and others who are “making their way through the immigration system.”
Mr. Jones said many visa application centres are now resuming some operations as local governments begin to lift restrictions.
Mr. O’Toole has been pitching’s his party’s openness since becoming the new Conservative Leader, and suggested that is what differentiates himself from past leaders.
“We need to reach out to more Canadians to show them that they could see themselves reflected in our party,” he said.
Mr. O’Toole said he included in his leadership platform putting an end to the ban that prevents gay men from donating blood, and added that he just finished writing an opinion piece about the issue.
“I’m putting something out on that because I think a lot of people will take a second look. There’s a new leader, I’ve said several times, this is an opportunity for people to take a new look at the Conservative Party, including more women, new Canadians, the LGBTQ community.”
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