OTTAWA —Erin O’Toole is making an aggressive pitch for centrist voters, saying he’s heading a “new party,” but Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau disputed that claim Friday, saying his main political rival is neither a progressive conservative nor a leader, and even if he was, his party won’t follow him.
Trudeau came out swinging against O’Toole the day after the sole English-language debate of the election campaign, as federal party leaders head into the crucial final week before voting day, and as advance voting began.
Speaking to the Star’s editorial board, Trudeau defended his snap election call, saying he doubted his minority government would have survived much longer anyway, and scoffed at O’Toole’s suggestion on the campaign trail Friday that he is a more trustworthy leader in the tradition of other progressive conservatives, like the late Jim Flaherty.
“Maybe he’s progressive Conservative,” said Trudeau of O’Toole. “But I wouldn’t call him a progressive Conservative leader. A progressive Conservative leader who says he’s pro-choice would get his caucus to be pro-choice; a progressive Conservative leader who says he’s in favour of vaccinations would be able to convince 90 per cent of his caucus before he can convince 90 per cent of Canadians to get vaccinated.
“So I think that leader, he can say what he’s like, but if you’re not actually leading, if you’re not actually bringing people somewhere, if you’re not actually willing to stand by those principles and govern on those principles, I wouldn’t give him that moniker.”
Trudeau said that in the Conservative party leadership race last year, “there was someone who actually had been a Progressive Conservative in Peter MacKay, who was defeated by Erin O’Toole, working with the right-wing conservative base of the Conservative party — Derek Sloan, Leslyn Lewis, the gun lobby. Those folks all worked together in a very concerted way to defeat those Progressive Conservative elements of the Conservative Party of Canada — and the people you owe your leadership win to matter.”
O’Toole, speaking in Mississauga on Friday, cast himself as an agent of both change and stability. “We’ve got a new leader. We’ve got a plan. We’ve got incredible candidates.”
He told reporters he is asking Canadians to take a chance on him and his platform, which projects more than $50 billion in new spending and a target of balancing the budget within a decade.
“We put it all out there so you, the Canadian people, can decide what kind of country you want to live in,” O’Toole said.
“We’ve shown you that we are a new party. We are a changed party, and we’re here to earn your trust and to earn your support.”
O’Toole, who campaigned as a “true blue” Conservative to win the party leadership last year, said Flaherty, who served as a provincial Progressive Conservative finance minister and federal Conservative finance minister, was a political mentor.
He had hinted at his new progressive credentials during the federal election debate Thursday night after Trudeau attacked New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has not ruled out supporting a Conservative minority government. Singh, the Liberal leader charged, “continues to pretend that it makes no difference whether there is a progressive government or a conservative … ”
That’s when O’Toole interjected, “Or progressive Conservative.” Trudeau shook O’Toole off, and continued: “ … or a conservative government. We know it makes a huge difference to families.”
Trudeau told the Star that O’Toole’s recovery plan would kill the Liberals’ $30-billion child care program, which has already led to deals with seven provinces and one territory — and admitted he’d been taken by surprise with the Conservative admission that it would be scrapped outright.
“I actually didn’t think Erin O’Toole would go so far as to reverse the deal. I didn’t expect him to make deals with any more provinces …But he’s decided that he’s going to tear up those things. He’s not going to create a single child care space across the country, he’s not going to respond to the business community saying that, loud and clear, it’s time for child care.”
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The Liberal leader also challenged O’Toole’s overall recovery plan. “His supposed strength on the economy is actually based on a view that is more suited to Canada in 1951 than in 2021,” he said. “Maybe that’s what he means by ‘take Canada back.’”
Trudeau continued to defend his snap election call Friday, pointing to how the pandemic demonstrated that a government could meet massive challenges such as creating emergency benefits, wage subsidies and business supports.
“We were able to do massive things because the urgency demanded it,” he said. “Well, I want to take that same ability to be urgent about things and apply that even more to climate change, even more to reconciliation, even more to everything. And I do believe Canadians need a say on this.”
Trudeau also defended his decision to require all federal-sector workers and passengers on airlines and interprovincial railways to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, even though he admitted that, “Yes, it’s creating polarization.
Still, he was unapologetic: “I don’t apologize that people are mad at me for listening and standing up (for) science. I’m not going to apologize for being unequivocal that vaccines are the way through this. And if you make a choice, a personal choice, to not get vaccinated, then I will have no sympathy for you when you come to me and said, ‘Oh, but I can’t go to a restaurant with my friends, or I’m not being allowed to go to the gym, or my employer is telling me I have to continue to work from home.’
“You don’t have a right to endanger others. You have a right to make choices about your own status and your own health decisions, but you can’t impose those decisions at (the risk of) everyone else.”
Trudeau said he drew inspiration from former astronaut Chris Hadfield, who accepted there are some people who will never be persuaded by science.
“If someone is firmly believing that the Earth is flat, then no amount of scientific proof is going to knock them off,” he said. “And that’s the problem with this —this anti-knowledge, anti-science, anti-authority, populism, that goes in all the wrong directions.”
Trudeau was also defiant about calling an election just shy of two years after the last one. “It’s not about me,” he said, insisting that his goal was not simply to secure a political legacy.
“No, I gotta win, because we’ve got so much to do, and so much to finish doing, or to get to a place where no, some future government won’t be able to reverse. We’re close, but we’re not there yet. And quite frankly, those child care deals are emblematic.”
He rejected a suggestion that his decision to go to the polls itself puts his signature child care program at risk, saying it would have been at risk anyway until provinces used the money to build up the system, hire child-care workers, and expand physical daycare spaces.
“Child care would be at risk for the next five years until Canadians are actually paying $10-a-day across the country. Hopefully at that point, nobody would be able to reverse it.”
Despite the fact that O’Toole has proposed a carbon levy that consumers would pay, which would go into an account to be spent on eco-friendly products, Trudeau suggested “our national price on pollution” would also be at risk “if Conservatives got elected, either now, or three years from now, or two years from now.
“There is nothing anyone government can do, or very little any one government can do that can’t be reversed by another government,” he said.
“So when I looked at, at the moment, we’re in the decisions we’re having to take as a country, at the deep, deep disagreements that were visible over the last number of months in the House but are now on full display during this election campaign … I think it is obvious that this Parliament wasn’t going to last the full two years.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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