Get ready for a whole new ball game, Erin O’Toole. The Liberals are going to throw the ball at your head. They were doing it even before you were elected leader.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s move to prorogue Parliament and come back in weeks with a Throne Speech and mini-budget wasn’t only about disrupting hearings on the WE controversy or marking the launch of the Liberals big pandemic-recovery agenda. It was about putting the new Conservative leader on his heels.
It means Mr. O’Toole, now Conservative Leader, has to make the biggest decisions on the direction of his party within weeks.
When Stephen Harper was a minority prime minister, he regularly thrust divisive decisions on the opposition Liberals to sow disarray – like votes on the extension of the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan that split the caucus of Liberal MPs down the middle. Former Liberal MP Bob Rae (now Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations) described Mr. Harper’s tactics as “throwing the ball at your head.”
Mr. Trudeau is now doing a bit of that to Mr. O’Toole, forcing the new leader to make quick choices on strategy. The Prime Minister is doing it with the Throne Speech and mini-budget, each of which will lead to a confidence vote – and carry the threat that an election could come next.
Mr. O’Toole’s Conservatives don’t have the votes to defeat Mr. Trudeau’s government without the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, and, despite the usual bravado, the Conservatives won’t want a snap election so quickly. But if Mr. Trudeau sets out an expansive, big-spending recovery plan that requires high-stakes confidence votes, Mr. O’Toole is going to have to take a position.
Mr. Trudeau is claiming that the Liberal government will have Canadians’ back, with big packages of income and other supports for workers’ whose livelihoods are vulnerable. He is daring the Conservatives to say they would do less. He is daring Mr. O’Toole to call for restraint.
David Tarrant, a Conservative strategist who has worked for the governments of Mr. Harper and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, said that Mr. Trudeau made this tactic pretty clear. At a news conference with Mr. Ford last week, Mr. Trudeau put it this way: “There will be no doubt important debates to be had with parties who don’t think we should be doing as much as we will be doing.”
It would be unsurprising if Conservatives complained Mr. Trudeau is shovelling money out the door. The latest estimate of this year’s budget deficit is $343-billion. The Conservatives consider fiscal restraint part of their brand. As a leadership candidate, Mr. O’Toole promised a path back to balanced budgets, and a “pay-as-you-go rule” that would require cuts to fund any new program.
But Mr. Tarrant thinks there is a trap there the Conservatives must avoid. “Now is not the time to fight the battle on fiscal rectitude,” he said.
He argues the consensus on balancing budgets and lowering debt that existed 20 years ago is no more. Baby Boomers had lived through high interest rates and personal debt, but millennials don’t have the same learned fears of debt. Even the Conservatives’ voter base isn’t stuck on deficit cutting. And people are feeling vulnerable now, he said.
Conservatives, Mr. Tarrant said, should “expunge” any language that hints at blaming people who received benefits in the pandemic. They shouldn’t talk about benefits being a disincentive to work. Conservatives should come up with their own income-support policies that deal with uncovered gig workers without being a backdoor to a universal income, or a compassionate child-care plan that isn’t a big national program.
Essentially, Mr. Tarrant argues that when Prime Minister Trudeau dares Mr. O’Toole to oppose a big-spending agenda, the new Conservative Leader should refuse. Instead, Mr. Tarrant suggests Mr. O’Toole should acknowledge that Canadians are hurting, stress his party is on the side of ordinary folks, and argue he has better ways to help them.
That still leaves Mr. O’Toole, a brand new leader fresh off a seven-month leadership campaign focused on winning the right side of the Conservative party, with only weeks to figure out the elements of his own recovery plan. They will be high-stakes choices, framed by confidence votes, that might end up as his platform in a snap election campaign. The Liberals are already firing fast-pitch politics straight at him.
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