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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole listens to a question from a reporter during a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 7, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

On the weekend before Monday’s return of Parliament, in what could be the final sitting before a possible spring election, John Ibbitson talked with Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole about the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and Mr. O’Toole’s emerging commitment to continentalism over globalization. What follows is a condensed version of their half-hour conversation.

You’ve been critical of the Liberal government’s inability to get as much vaccine as we need in order to bend the curve on the pandemic. And you’ve been critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic overall. But a lot of these criticisms come with the wisdom of hindsight. How, honestly, do you think you would have handled the pandemic better?

I would not agree with that assessment. The Conservatives in late January started suggesting border restrictions on flights from China. We were accused of racism when that first came out. In late February/ early March, I recommended standing up the EI [Employment Insurance] system for work stoppages that were coming. I recommended the use of military in what would be a stressed health and long-term care system. I was mocked for those things at the time. And eventually, all of these measures were introduced by the government. I would also have made sure we were ready for the vaccines. And what’s strange with this is I want them to succeed. But I also have to push for better, and there’s often a lot better that could be done by this government.

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I can show you e-mails with advice I sent to several ministers and to the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] in the middle of the early parts of the crisis, mainly economic advice. And so I feel like I’m not arguing from the backseat of the car. At times I wish I was driving the car because this is where experience is needed in a prime minister, not the sort of ceremonial role that [Justin Trudeau] sometimes thinks it is.

You’ve put forward some interesting ideas in the five months since you became leader, on the environment and on support for unionized workers, but there’s no meat on these bones as yet and there could be a spring election. So to take one important issue: The Liberals now have a credible plan, anchored on a carbon tax, to meet the Paris accord targets to fight global warming. You oppose the carbon tax and yet you say you will meet the Paris targets. How would you meet those targets?

With a net zero approach [a commitment to remove at least as much carbon as someone or something produces], working collaboratively with large emitters. And it’s a much smarter plan. And, in fact, I highlighted elements of this in my call with the Prime Minister in November, to try and get a strategy in place, ahead of the decision on Keystone. Once again, there was no strategy in place, and we drifted into yet another huge failure and loss for Canada. I have spoken to industry, many of them are going to a net zero approach and that approach allows us to have a much more robust debate about climate change, emission reduction, and how we can tackle it without putting our economy at a disadvantage. My main problem with the carbon tax is it has turned into this truism that it’s the only way to reduce emissions, when it’s not.

But is that a serious approach? Because that approach relies on voluntary commitments, it relies on provincial commitments. What happens if the major emitters simply decided not to co-operate? What happens if one of the larger provinces says it doesn’t accept this as a major priority?

That’s a challenge that’s inherent in our Constitution. But I’ll tell you I don’t anticipate that happening because I have spoken to [Alberta] Premier [Jason] Kenney on this specifically. They have a large-emitter tax in Alberta. You tax them or you work with them, or relieve their tax, if they can get their emissions down, rather than target the 30 million households and small businesses who aren’t the problem. The carbon tax puts us at a competitive disadvantage to our border states in manufacturing in Ontario. Let’s have a co-ordinated approach on self-reliance in Canada and the U.S. on energy, on resources, and have a joint approach on emission reduction, so that we’re not seeing leakage, as they call it. Leakage means jobs.

One other area that’s key, obviously, is the economic impact of the pandemic. You say that deficit reduction has to be a priority and that you want to balance the budget over 10 years. But again, how? What is your benchmark for controlling the deficit other than just to say you will?

Once we round the corner with the vaccine, then we need to start in a fair and equitable manner ramping down all the incredible supports going out, and focus what supports are going out on job preservation. My main focus over the next decade or so is getting people back to work, focusing on job creation, and that’s why we can’t transition all parts of our economy if we want to crawl out of the COVID hole. Mr. Trudeau’s approach of being sort of against sectors – energy, telling Ontario you have to move past manufacturing – he has no understanding that if we start eroding major elements of our economy, our prosperity, our way of life will radically diminish.

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We will see the first generation in Canadian history that will be poorer than their parents. We will also see huge division in this country, much worse than it already is now. So, we need to secure our future economically. And the key thing in that is jobs, which is why I’m reaching out to private-sector unions. Anybody that wants to get people working, build projects, show confidence in our economy, I want them to be my partner, even if we squabbled a few years ago. It’s all hands on deck to save the economy,

You may reject the premise of this question, but it seems to me that one consequence of failing to establish a really clear policy agenda is that it makes it easier for the Liberals to brand you, and of course they’re trying to brand your party as extremist. How do you convince middle-class voters in suburban ridings, who really decide elections, that they can trust the Conservative Party? Because right now I’m not sure they do.

Because I’m one of them, and Mr. Trudeau has never experienced one minute of their lives, and the challenges, and the struggles they might be fearing now with health and the economic crisis. Not one minute. I’ve been reaching out to those very Canadians, new Canadians, first- and second-generation Canadians, Canadians of all backgrounds and faiths, the LGBTQ community, Indigenous Canadians. It’s going to take some time to build a relationship with some groups, I get that. I try to do that. And I think Canadians will see my sincerity, our team, the candidates we’re recruiting, the ideas we’re putting forward, and they will see the Liberals’ slander for what it is.

I think if people don’t like to see the division they’ve seen in the United States, they should not like what they’ve already seen from the Liberal Party, and their lies and misleading approach on me. It’s politics, there’s always the boogeyman approach they use with us, but I am the kid from the suburbs who grew up with personal challenges and had to work hard, succeed, respect others. That’s my core values and I think that will come through, and we will win the trust of those voters.

The Liberals have made improving relations with the United States a major priority, now that Joe Biden is president. You’ve been critical of their willingness to accept the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and move on. How would you handle the Biden administration differently?

We need to align with the Americans on trade, security, and a global approach, vis-à-vis China especially. And that way, protect our special relationship. Canadian energy for example: the most environmentally, socially progressive in the world, ESG leadership [Environment, Social and Governance, criteria for responsible corporate activity], Indigenous engagement. So let’s work on energy independence for Canada and the U.S., connect our electricity grids, work on that alignment on steel, on aluminum, on auto that has been there since the war but has eroded. These are the links that need to be forged. The Americans don’t care about photo-ops and steak dinner; they want to know what’s in their national strategic interest, and Canada has to insert itself, and make sure that our interests are aligned to theirs for our benefit. Start talking about allowing the new Biden administration to come up with a North American approach to long-term planning for emission reduction and self-sufficiency in core industries.

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I just want to pick up something there – “self-sufficiency in core industries.” Are you talking about a form of continental protectionism in areas of strategic economic interest?

On core industries, yes, and it could mean an aligned approach, countries like Canada and the U.S. tariffing bad-actor countries like China. I do think there’s going to be a realignment of global trade patterns. We are seen as a laggard on the China relationship. Let’s align, so that we can have a special relationship. Our economies have been integrated both on trade and security since World War Two. We have to remind the Americans of that and that’s why defence and security, which the Trudeau government just doesn’t get, that is core to everything that happens in Washington. Trade and security are linked. We have to build that link again and the interdependence will give us that special position that was probably best leveraged under [Brian] Mulroney. And then you can tackle environmental issues without putting our economy at a competitive disadvantage.

I understand, especially about China, but it almost sounds as though we’re moving into a new era in which the Conservative Party is no longer as fully committed to globalization as it was in the past. And that’s interesting.

We have to recognize that people have been left behind, and globalization has been used by some countries that don’t follow the rules-based system that we’ve talked about. So, I would like to see free trade amongst free countries that follow the rules. And I do think this type of alignment is coming. It also means conservatives can’t just be free-traders regardless of whether China’s operating internment camps for part of their population. Our values should never be for sale. If you’re a democratic country that cares about the environment and social governance and Indigenous engagement, you should only use Canadian energy, softwood and rare-earth minerals. That’s how we should be marketing ourselves.

Finally, we must talk about the Governor-General. Julie Payette’s resignation has been deeply embarrassing to the Trudeau government. Clearly they didn’t do a proper job of vetting. How can the government make sure this doesn’t happen again and do you have any nominees in mind?

I’ve said publicly, we should see a return to the viceregal appointments committee. It was not political; it produced outstanding appointments. So that’s what we should return to. Given the circumstances – this is unprecedented, and we’re in a minority Parliament where Trudeau has been posturing for an election –at the bare minimum he should be consulting the opposition parties. It’s a very important role and it’s been so sad to see this sort of Liberal photo-op approach to everything malign such an important institution. I don’t have names in mind but at this point, there should be consultations, and Mr. Trudeau should learn from his mistakes.

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