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Conservative leader Erin O'Toole asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has outlined a sharp economic shift for his party focused on fighting inequality through labour rights, protecting intellectual property and reducing Canada’s trading relationship with China.

Titled “a new Conservative vision,” Mr. O’Toole presented the plan Friday in a virtual speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto. It was delivered in the same week that Liberal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland laid out her government’s approach for the economy over the coming months.

He also called for emphasizing employment data alongside GDP and expressed concern with the declining rate of unionization in the private sector, a theme Mr. O’Toole acknowledged is not a traditional message for his party.

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“Middle-class Canada has been betrayed by the elites on every level: political elites, financial elites, cultural elites,” Mr. O’Toole said. "Private-sector union membership has collapsed. … It may surprise you to hear a Conservative bemoan the decline of private-sector union membership.

"But this was an essential part of the balance between what was good for business and what was good for employees. Today, that balance is dangerously disappearing.”

Mr. O’Toole warned that the younger generation faces the prospect of an endless cycle of dead-end contract jobs with no benefits or job security.

“Do we really want a nation of Uber drivers?" he asked.

The Conservative Leader said “GDP growth alone is not the be-all and end-all of politics.” He noted that many of the world’s rich and well-educated have been largely insulated from the pandemic recession, highlighting the need to address income inequality.

“It’s time Conservatives and Canadians took inequality seriously," he said. “We must provide the right framework to create wealth so that we may give back to those who need it the most. Our frontline workers, our teachers, our seniors.”

The current Liberal government regularly lists income inequality as a priority, but Mr. O’Toole said Ottawa’s plan is too focused on picking winners and losers and warned that the government’s promise of an environmentally focused recovery will not be effective.

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Earlier this week, Ms. Freeland laid out her government’s economic plan in a Wednesday speech to Toronto’s Global Forum. She repeated that message Friday in a virtual speech to the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal that was primarily delivered in French.

The Liberal message is that the government is prepared to spend what it takes to support individuals and businesses through the pandemic and that prioritizing an economic recovery and fiscal targets for addressing the debt will come later.

Ms. Freeland said she will soon be introducing legislation to deliver on recently announced plans to extend the federal wage subsidy and to adopt a new rent subsidy that will go directly to businesses. She expressed hope that opposition parties will give the measures unanimous support so that it can be approved quickly.

During a question-and-answer session after the speech, Ms. Freeland was asked about Canada’s approach to China and trade in general during a period of growing protectionist sentiment in the world.

“Canada has shown over the past four years that we understand how to find an advantage for our country, even in a world of growing protectionism,” said Ms. Freeland, who played a leading role in renegotiating Canada’s free-trade agreement with the United States and Mexico.

“We are a country that is open to the world. We are a country that has many, many companies that are open to free trade, strong companies. And for Canada, in general, a protectionist international environment is difficult for us. But I think our government, and I would say the Team Canada, has already shown that we know how to find excellent solutions, even in a difficult world.”

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In blunt contrast to Ms. Freeland’s diplomatic tone, Mr. O’Toole’s speech directly singled out China as a bad actor on the international stage. His speech accused China of “Orwellian surveillance tech, cybertheft on an industrial scale, hostage diplomacy and increasing human-rights abuses within its borders.” He called for Canada to curb its trading relationship when it comes to sensitive products.

“It might be okay for flip-flops and patio furniture. It’s not okay for things that are vital to our security, and increasingly to our prosperity," he said.

Also on Friday, the Finance Department released its monthly tracking report on federal finances. The fiscal monitor report showed that the federal government has run a $170.5-billion deficit over the first five months of the fiscal year that began on April 1.

The report also showed that Ottawa ran a $21.9-billion deficit in August alone, which compares with a $3.7-billion deficit in August, 2019.

Over the April to August period this year, new spending outpaced lower revenues as the main driver of the larger deficit. Revenues were down $39.6-billion, or 29 per cent, while program expenses were up $127.4-billion, or 97.1 per cent.

The department said the main factors contributing to the increased spending were transfers to individuals and businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and other programs.

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The federal government has not tabled a budget since March, 2019. In a July fiscal “snapshot,” which is less detailed than a formal fiscal update, the government said the 2020-21 federal deficit would be $343.2-billion. Ms. Freeland has promised to release a fiscal update in the coming weeks.

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