Plastics Politics: Single-use, or Here to Stay?

Last week, the federal government unveiled the six single-use plastic items they will be labelling as toxic: plastic grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics. The Liberals chose these six items based on criteria including the presence of a viable replacement and damage to the environment. Clearly, something must be done about plastic pollution, but many critics oppose the drastic “toxic” label, particularly during a pandemic that has pushed plastic PPE use way up. Whether it’s the right or wrong move from a policy perspective, it’s clearly a political winner for the Liberals. This is just the beginning of plastics politics in Canada.

The Liberal, NDP, and Green voter bases have been clamouring for action, any action, on plastics for years now, marking a strong vote pickup opportunity for the Liberals. For a centre-left party that has absolutely zero chance of winning over the more conservative west, the Liberals’ best gambit is to tack left and eat up the progressive voters who themselves are hungry for action on climate change. Although policy analysts might contend that the toxic label will have knock-on effects down the road, action on climate change has been so delayed that voters will take whatever wins they can get.

Progressive voters are not the only ones who are watching the plastics file. Business concerns about the viability of their own plastics products are high, and they do register with the Liberals. Offering only six items to start with, instead of outright banning all single-use plastics, is part of that classic Liberal incrementalist strategy. Simultaneously keeping the confidence of both business and progressives is what this government has tried to do since the start, but make no mistake, even an incrementalist policy will progress over time. No where is that clearer than in the government’s own plastics policy process.

To come up with their shortlist of the sinful six, the Liberals first created a plastics long-list, showcasing all the plastics products they would consider for a ban, before whittling it down based on the above criteria. Many items were omitted from the ban due to their usefulness, lack of available replacement, and even a lack of political will. In time, new products will appear to eclipse the old plastics ones, and political viability will grow for others. This long-list gives us a roadmap for how the Liberal government, if they remain in power, will pursue their plastics long-game.

Will the plastics you produce or use end up banned? Check the long-list. If it’s on there, then now is the best time to start thinking about government relations strategies to see how you can get in on the ground floor on plastics. Connecting with the opposition will be key as well since the plastics file will hang over successive governments for years to come, but remember, Conservatives will have a tough time with voters if they undo a plastics ban. A smart government relations strategy is one that accepts that plastics bans are coming, are here for the long-term, and works to put your interests in front of government.

Supreme court nominations have become a blood sport — our own top court shows they need not be

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 18, 2020.

It seems a safe bet that, if one were to survey Canadians, more of them would be able to identify Amy Coney Barrett than any one of the judges who sit on the Supreme Court of Canada.

This may well be attributable to the fact that Barrett has, in many ways, become just another act in the ongoing circus that is the Trump administration.

But more than that, Barrett’s nomination marks the latest milestone in the politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court, this time around, driving Democrats to seriously consider such radical options as “court-packing” by expanding the number of sitting justices.

While it’s true that we in Canada haven’t allowed our own Supreme Court nominations to become poisoned by partisan politics, the instinct to construe our own court in the image of the United States runs strong.

The media searches constantly for a simple, some would say simplistic, frame to understand the court’s dynamic, similar to the left-right, Republican-Democrat divide that characterizes the U.S., as with the “Gang of Five” of the 1990s or the Laskin-Spence-Dickson “LSD Connection” of the 1970s.

These efforts have foundered, however, because the Supreme Court of Canada, thankfully, continues to defy the reductive allure of partisanship. Why is that?

Well, let us begin with what Canada gets right. For starters, there is the nomination process itself, which in 2016, was formalized as an independent advisory panel.

Even before this reform, nominations were characterized by the relative absence of scandal. Even the messier instances, such as the Nadon Affair in 2013, tend to turn on narrow, technical grounds, such as regional representation.

No one in Canada is “Borked,” in the manner of Ronald Reagan’s 1982 nominee whose confirmation was the first to be destroyed in the partisan crucible of the Senate. We have yet, on a relative basis, to let our process be hijacked by zero-sum partisans.

But perhaps the most influential difference of all, in Canada, there is a mandated retirement age of 75. Had the late Justice Ginsburg served on the Canadian bench, she would have been forced out about a decade ago.

Instead, in the United States, federal judges can sit for life, due to a long-standing interpretation of Article III of their Constitution, which stipulates that justices “shall hold their offices during good behaviour.” Intended to reduce partisanship by insulating justices from the need to face voters or seek later employment, it has in fact made matters worse as lifespans have lengthened, raising the stakes of an open seat.

All that said, our own justice system is far from perfect. One need look no further than a pair of recent Supreme Court of Canada rulings that have escaped popular notice.

In a ruling in the case of R. v. Chouan, the Supreme Court found that the Trudeau Liberals’ changes to the jury selection process were constitutional. The Liberals had eliminated peremptory challenges of potential jurors, ostensibly in response to anti-Indigenous discrimination.

But the matter is not so cut-and-dry, and numerous legal groups representing racialized minorities had begged the court not to go along with the proposed changes, positing that they would have the opposite effect, making it instead harder to toss racists from the jury pool.

Another recent ruling, the case of Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, found the two men did not deserve a new trial, despite the improper selection of their jury.

Taken together, these rulings highlight the potential for a slow erosion of our own justice system. Many defence lawyers have rightful concerns, but the media and the public in this country remain fixated on the Barrett nomination instead.

It is a shame for these very real dangers to Canadians to be lost or overlooked in favour of the seductive tribalism that brought us such unhelpful memes as “Notorious RBG.” There may be much amiss in the American system of justice — but in resting on our laurels, we risk ignoring concerning developments in our own. Our justice system is imperfect, and it requires constant vigilance, not just cheap armchair moralizing.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Toxic Trump is also a superspreader of hate

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 11, 2020.

Stop the presses: on Thursday, the FBI charges 13 American citizens for conspiring in a domestic terrorist plot to kidnap and potentially murder Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. They then wanted to start a civil war fuelled by white supremacy and discontent with lockdown restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’d begin with an assault on the state capital. Overwhelm the legislature. Attack police officers and, if the mission failed, invade Whitmer’s residence and kill the duly elected governor of the 10th largest state.

But the presses hardly stopped at all. And that’s because what should have been a “man bites dog” story was nothing more than another day in Donald Trump’s America.

The sad fact is, since the Trump-inspired rise of hate groups and “militias,” the term “domestic terrorism” is thrown around like confetti.

It is not at all random that this kind of depraved action follows in the wake of Trump’s insistent refusal to condemn white supremacy and his ratcheting up violent rhetoric about his political enemies.

Shortly after the attack was revealed to Americans, the president and his proxy, Jason Miller, wait for it, actually criticized Whitmer in the same terms as her would-be kidnappers: for the action she had taken to address the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan.

Are you kidding me?

After all, Whitmer is hardly alone. Over the past six months, every level and every stripe of government in Canada and the United States has made difficult policy decisions in the name of public health.

Conservatives, New Democrats, Liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike have taken responsible but unpopular decisions to stem the chaos of the pandemic. All of which makes them easy targets of fringe groups across the country.

But what the hell is going on when the president of the United States publicly disparages a public servant hours after a potential attempt on her life? What kind of a Kafkaesque world are we living in when the president cannot condemn the planned attack for what it is: domestic terrorism, planned and quite nearly perpetrated on American soil.

Well, the time has come to bell the cat. David Gergen, the man who has been a counsellor to more presidents than any other said it first: there is a madman in the White House.

Full of vitriol and heavy steroids, the diminished emperor king is left to careen around the halls of the White House; halls left empty because of the virus he spread.

The president has become the super-spreader of hate and in that regard, the verdict is in. Donald Trump has emboldened dangerous elements of America’s far right and in doing so he has become the very root of the problem.

We’ve seen it again and again — from his response to Charlottesville to his repeated and pathetic claims that he “doesn’t know” about people like David Duke and the Proud Boys. Well, he does know. And what’s more, he knows exactly how to speak to them in code.

Countless Americans have had their participation in public life threatened by the president’s cronies-by-proxy. For example, in Brooklyn on Wednesday, before the attack on Whitmer had been revealed, a mob of Orthodox Jewish Trump supporters attacked journalist Jacob Kornbluh.

In our world, with information coming at us daily from every direction, it has become easy to discount political language as window-dressing, disingenuous, perhaps mendacious.

Trump himself has spent five years reminding us that politicians are all crooked — except for him of course — and that the words they use are not worth the paper they’re printed on.

This is the greatest deception of all. Words matter. In politics as in everyday life, they have the power to galvanize us, to inspire us and to drive us toward despair. They move markets and set the direction for cultural change.

In Trump’s case, they also reinforce the notion of an America where this kind of action, fuelled by racist hatred and political division, is acceptable. It is not acceptable.

Enough.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Your Pre-Election Check List: How Should Businesses Engage Before the Next Election?

The current federal Liberal minority government is just shy of its one-year anniversary in power. It was one year ago, on October 21, 2019, that Canadians sent Justin Trudeau back to Parliament, albeit in a minority situation. And what a year it has turned out to be. Despite early rumours of an imminent election, it looks like Canadians will not be headed to the polls this fall. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has supported this government’s most recent Speech from the Throne and has left the door open to supporting this government even longer, provided they continue to ‘help Canadians’. On the other side of the coin is the historic evidence that suggests that minority governments only last 18 months in this country. That window comes up in March/April, conveniently around a projected March 2021 federal budget, which begs the question: Will there be a spring election?

Elections lead to uncertainty for many Canadian businesses. Once an election is called, government work shuts down for an extended period while the public service enters caretaker mode and it takes time as election results come in and the new cabinet is formed. Companies also can’t advocate for regulatory change or seek funding during a writ period, which slows the pace of business. For some companies who have aligned their priorities with the government of the day, they run the risk of a new government doing a 180-degree turn. So, as we mark the one-year anniversary of this government and hold to the conventional wisdom that the next election could be in as little as six months, what should businesses in Canada be doing right now?

First, businesses should make sure they review the language in the Speech to look for areas of alignment between federal priorities and business objectives. The Speech from the Throne sets the direction for the federal government you will see over the next 6 months. This is both the government’s blueprint of what they want to accomplish and their road map to re-election. If you like what you see, then you’re in luck, but if your core businesses issues aren’t represented, then you will be facing an uphill battle to introduce anything new into the equation.

Second, say goodbye to long-term policy wins. Governments want to be re-elected and this government will be looking for quick wins in the next six months to show as proof points on the campaign trail that they can get things done. This current session has only just begun, but already two new bills – one to establish a National Truth and Reconciliation Day and the other to ban conversion therapy – have been introduced. Both are symbolic but important bills to pass and have the added benefit of broad public support, making them relatively easy to pass into law and giving the government the checkmark they want to show the electorate on the campaign trail. This is not to say that your organization can’t continue to work with government on long-term issues, but recognize that the government is thinking in the short term and anything you can deliver that gives them a win – and more importantly, votes – in the next election will be looked at more favourably.

Third, businesses should assess their relationships with the opposition parties. While the outcome of the election is impossible to forecast at this point, it’s simply prudent to examine all of your options and be ready for any eventuality. Often, businesses are afraid of being seen as partisan or picking sides, but you don’t have to take that approach. The key is education and building relationships. Any business should take the posture of believing it’s best to invest in all relationships across the aisle. Today’s backbencher can be tomorrow’s cabinet Minister and opposition parties like being thought about before they gain power and will remember long-lasting friendships.

Finally, although the list could go on much longer, take stock of your relationships with the public service. They will largely remain in their positions regardless of the outcomes of the next election. Invest in these relationships for the long term. The political party may be the head of government, but the public servants are the neck. If it has been a while since you’ve connected with them, set up a meeting to review your priorities and refresh their memories on the issues you care about.

Predicting elections are always a fool’s errand, but these principles are ones that can help make sure your organization is ready to weather any election result.

 

Matt Triemstra is the Vice-President & General Manager of Ensight Canada. He has over 15 years of experience consulting and working for Conservative Members of Parliament and the Conservative Resource Group on Parliament Hill.

Lurking behind a shameful debate, a strategy built on chaos

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 4, 2020.

It’s widely agreed that Tuesday’s faceoff between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joseph R. Biden Jr. was the worst U.S. presidential debate in history. It also marked a low point in American political culture. So shambolic, so grating, so disappointing, so ridiculous it was not only almost impossible to watch, it left me feeling sick to my stomach.

The debate changed nothing. Biden still appears to be winning. Trump appeared to do nothing to win over those suburban women his campaign so covets.

But here is what did change. The debate made it obvious Trump has, once and for all, stopped running against Biden.

Instead, he is running against the idea of American democracy itself.

I have previously written in this space about my confidence in the resiliency and maturity of democracy in the United States; about the ability of its institutions to withstand the inevitable speed bumps that would come with a Trump presidency.

What I failed to account for, because it was beyond imaginable to contemplate, was Trump’s singular capacity to hollow out the institution of the presidency itself, by turning against the very democratic system that elevated him to the position in 2016.

By the time Trump’s term is done, the presidency will be so diminished that even someone as feeble as Biden will be able to occupy it. (And let us be clear: While this was a disgraceful night for Trump, it was no great showing for Biden either.)

Yes, admittedly, others who have come before Trump have helped to muddy things. From Clinton’s sexual misconduct through Bush’s dishonesty to Nixon’s prolific tape recordings, history, at times, has not been kind to the human dimension of the institution of the presidency.

But never has a president made it so explicitly his strategy to disrupt and discredit the presidential vote itself.

“This is not going to end well,” Trump said repeatedly in discussing the election. Is this a prediction? Or is it a threat?

Horrifyingly, the president’s behaviour in recent weeks suggests the latter.

In August, Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that he planned to send law enforcement to polling locations. His plans have since escalated to include organizing an “Army for Trump’s Election-Security Operation.” In mid-September, on the second day of early voting in Fairfax, Virginia, a group of Trump supporters blocked the entrance to a polling location. It is not hard to see how all this might end badly.

These activities go wildly beyond the traditional election-day tradition of poll-watching, a tradition with its own problematic history. In 2018, the courts lifted a 30-year restriction on the Republican National Committee that had prevented them from any kind of poll-watching activity, after they were found guilty of intimidating voters in the 1980s.

If the courts think that Trump-era Republicans will play by the rules, they better think again.

The same goes for the Debate Commission and Vice President Biden. There is no chance the vague assurances of improvements or reforms from the federal, bipartisan commission will change a thing. What possible fix can there be when one actor is purely a nihilist, bent on chaos and destruction?

Given the rumblings of those who feel Biden should recuse himself from the next debates altogether and the fact Trump has himself been diagnosed with COVID-19, Tuesday’s showing may end up being the only debate between the two. We can only hope.

Looking ahead, there is good reason to fear what such an irresponsible actor as Trump might do come voting day on Nov. 3. Experts predict there will be an “overtime count” as swing states count a higher-than-average number of mail-in ballots, and there may be no clear victor on election night. With a president who refuses to concede, and an audience primed to expect the tidy resolution of an “Apprentice” episode, anything might happen.

And it will be in that moment that America, her people and her institutions, will be put to their real test. When the challenge to their democracy is no longer a speed bump but rather a sinkhole of proportions never before seen, just how resilient and mature will their democracy be?

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Virtual Voting Virtually Works

In a historic first on Monday night, the House of Commons held their first virtual vote on a sub amendment to the Speech from the Throne. The good news? It only took two hours. The vote comes after months of on and off wrangling amongst parties to determine how Parliament might return safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Although Parliament is supposedly a workplace like any other, not many workplaces feature a convention of 338+ Canadians in one room before allowing them to spread out to every corner of the country. And so, hybrid voting was born, and with it, significant procedural challenges.

To have their votes counted, MPs need to speak slowly and clearly, and ensure the all-powerful Zoom algorithms have chosen to fixate on the correct MP’s face to broadcast their screen throughout the chamber as they vote. Any small sound can flip the screen to another MP, which has led to parliamentary hilarity like images of Pierre Poilievre kissing his son while members voted, and the broadcast of a lovely bedtime story as told by Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.

As fun as these stories sound, the reality of distance voting is serious business. Ensuring all MPs have an equal opportunity to participate in debates and votes in the House is a cornerstone of Canada’s representative democracy. Even small mistakes, like misidentifying a speaker, can cause major confusion, and given the significant digital divide in Canada between urban and rural broadband internet access, MPs with a weak internet connection run the risk of being unheard, effectively disenfranchising their constituents. The opposition was rightly wary of such a voting system pushed by the government, particularly in a minority situation where every vote is crucial. Conservative MPs have been steadfast in their belief that MPs must stand and be held accountable for their votes in the House, something that is far harder to do in a virtual setting. This accountability might not be as elusive in a hybrid model as Conservatives think, however, given that each MP had 20 seconds of screen time on average to vote, more than a voice vote in-person would afford them. Preference for a sitting model really does seem to come down to party politics.

For all the technicalities, hilarity, annoyances, and honest-to-goodness constitutional issues that can come from virtual voting, we must bear in mind that the method is here to stay until a vaccine is developed, or until the Prime Minister’s next ethics scandal forces another prorogation. So, not very long at all.

From the throne, a campaign speech in search of a campaign

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, September 27, 2020.

In Rideau Cottage, the 11-month itch. Or so it seemed for a brief period when politicos and journalists wondered out loud whether the prime minister’s request for time on major television networks was intended to host an election call.

Instead, Justin Trudeau gave a, well, one is still not sure what speech he gave. As far as one could discern it was a pastiche of a couple of speeches, at least. One, a concerned prime minister speaking deliberately to his nation about challenging times to come, and the other an infomercial for the Liberal party best suited to middle-of-the-night television.

The speech from the throne itself did not lay out the Armageddon scenario forecast by some who especially dreaded the budget attached to it. Yet at the same time, the government’s plan largely ignored calls for immediate fiscal prudence. All justified afterward, in Trudeau’s words, because “low interest rates mean we can afford it.” Never mind the fact that it remains to be seen whether Canada truly can afford it.

Following the prime minister’s address, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was pressed by Rosemary Barton to reveal the limit of the government’s apparent capacity to spend its way through the pandemic, the point at which “enough is enough.” Freeland took an uncomfortable beat before responding sharply, “do you know when COVID is going to end, Rosie?” To say that the finance minister’s jumpy reply did not exactly inspire confidence is akin to saying that Tokyo is “crowded” or calling Michael Jordan ”a basketball player.” That is to say, a colossal understatement.

The prime minister’s campaign mindset shone through in his semi-Faustian bargain that the Liberals don’t want Canadians “to take on debt that your government can better shoulder.” A short sentence which summed up the government’s apparent mindset for governing through what Trudeau warned was likely to be another difficult year of COVID-19’s health and economic impact. As with Freeland’s comments, Trudeau’s remarks all but confirmed that when it comes to the suggestion of any roadmap for fiscal stewardship, there is no “there” there.

That is not to suggest that there was nothing to celebrate in this throne speech. The commitment to Canada-wide early learning and childcare is hugely important, and the support for businesses of all sizes is essential to keep the economy on track through the fall. At the same time, very few of the policies outlined on Wednesday are entirely new, and many seem like echoes of familiar Liberal campaign pledges.

Now that Jagmeet Singh’s NDP have agreed to support the government’s direction, we have managed to avoid the headache of an election — for now. It is nonetheless difficult to shake the sneaking suspicion that a call to the polls is looming in the not-so-distant future. Trudeau’s supposed election itch proved to be a false alarm, but his party’s campaign machine was eager to get involved in two Toronto-area by-elections, by ordaining its chosen candidates.

While both Marci Ien and Ya’ara Saks are no doubt strong contenders, the muscling-in by the central party is very telling. We should not ignore the prime minister’s flip-flop on his 2015 stance that the Liberals would maintain an open nomination process across every single riding. It seems obvious that an open nomination process, with more input from the constituency and party members, makes for more sound representation and electioneering. It does.

For Trudeau to renege on his own stance and sidestep the nomination of other potential candidates seems especially unwise, given his reputation for perceived interference and favouritism.

More than anything, the push to nominate their chosen star candidates suggests the Liberals are envisioning at least the contours of another federal race on the horizon. If the prime minister and his deputy press on with the same elbows-out approach and with so little regard for the perception of their approach to spending, Conservatives may soon start to develop an election itch of their own.

For now, the Liberals have just enough leeway to pursue their agenda, though it remains to be seen how quickly and how aggressively they will. Remember, Trudeau needs to keep a few chips in his pocket — for the inevitable election call, and crucially, the parliamentary poker that will precede it.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

In a gradual shift to the centre, an opening for O’Toole

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, September 20, 2020.

Since Erin O’Toole won the leadership of the Conservative Party and became the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Air Force veteran and former cabinet minister has been busy waiting in line.

On Wednesday, after an hours-long delay, he and his family were turned away from an Ottawa-area testing centre. O’Toole continues to self-isolate after a potential exposure from a staffer, and he later obtained a test at a special site offering priority tests to MPs and family.

But O’Toole also wasted no time in pointing out that his experience was an indictment of the Trudeau government’s failed approach to COVID-19 testing. Indeed, many testing centres are finding themselves overburdened by lengthy lineups as case numbers are on the rise and students return to school.

Many Canadians may soon find themselves in the same position as O’Toole, shivering in line at a COVID testing centre. O’Toole’s latest attack may resonate with this audience, especially when combined with the imposition of new restrictions in Ontario and the second wave beginning to bear down upon us. Gone is the halo effect of competent leadership in the early days of the pandemic. Instead, we are seeing O’Toole test-driving criticisms of the government as it enters a distinctly more challenging and vulnerable phase of pandemic politics.

As his predecessor discovered, and as I wrote previously in this column, the role of opposition leader in a time of acute crisis can be difficult. You must hold the prime minister and his or her government to account, but at the same time, the rally-around-the-flag effect can insulate the government from even the mildest critique. Andrew Scheer never quite managed to find the right angle to attack Trudeau over his handling of COVID-19, because for months the prime minister cut a sympathetic figure: isolated from his wife and family, working remotely from his cottage. O’Toole’s empathic approach on display with the line-waiting — “I’m suffering because of this government’s mistakes, too”— may yet do the trick.

Even as he sharpens his weapons against Trudeau on the pandemic front, O’Toole’s other task is to sell himself to the 905 region, and an effort to grow Conservative support beyond the base. This will require a softer approach, and a tack toward the centre that is already self-evident to those paying attention.

Take, for example, O’Toole’s Labour Day greeting. “I was raised in a General Motors family. My dad worked there for over 30 years,” it begins unremarkably. But by the time O’Toole is explaining to the viewer that “GDP growth alone is not the end-all, be-all of politics” and “the goal of economic policy should be more than just wealth creation — it should be solidarity, and the wellness of families,” one gets the distinct sense that O’Toole’s own brand of conservatism will be different from that of his predecessor.

To be specific, O’Toole seems to have his eye on union voters — GM families, as he says, just like the O’Tooles of yore. This is the same strategy used to great effect by Boris Johnson in the U.K., who won his majority government in large part by breaking through the traditional, working-class “red wall” of Labour supporters. As one leftist publication concluded, “Erin O’Toole’s Labour Day message should worry the left.”

Since Erin O’Toole won the leadership of the Conservative Party and became the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Air Force veteran and former cabinet minister has been busy waiting in line.

On Wednesday, after an hours-long delay, he and his family were turned away from an Ottawa-area testing centre. O’Toole continues to self-isolate after a potential exposure from a staffer, and he later obtained a test at a special site offering priority tests to MPs and family.

But O’Toole also wasted no time in pointing out that his experience was an indictment of the Trudeau government’s failed approach to COVID-19 testing. Indeed, many testing centres are finding themselves overburdened by lengthy lineups as case numbers are on the rise and students return to school.

Many Canadians may soon find themselves in the same position as O’Toole, shivering in line at a COVID testing centre. O’Toole’s latest attack may resonate with this audience, especially when combined with the imposition of new restrictions in Ontario and the second wave beginning to bear down upon us. Gone is the halo effect of competent leadership in the early days of the pandemic. Instead, we are seeing O’Toole test-driving criticisms of the government as it enters a distinctly more challenging and vulnerable phase of pandemic politics.

As his predecessor discovered, and as I wrote previously in this column, the role of opposition leader in a time of acute crisis can be difficult. You must hold the prime minister and his or her government to account, but at the same time, the rally-around-the-flag effect can insulate the government from even the mildest critique. Andrew Scheer never quite managed to find the right angle to attack Trudeau over his handling of COVID-19, because for months the prime minister cut a sympathetic figure: isolated from his wife and family, working remotely from his cottage. O’Toole’s empathic approach on display with the line-waiting — “I’m suffering because of this government’s mistakes, too”— may yet do the trick.

Even as he sharpens his weapons against Trudeau on the pandemic front, O’Toole’s other task is to sell himself to the 905 region, and an effort to grow Conservative support beyond the base. This will require a softer approach, and a tack toward the centre that is already self-evident to those paying attention.

Take, for example, O’Toole’s Labour Day greeting. “I was raised in a General Motors family. My dad worked there for over 30 years,” it begins unremarkably. But by the time O’Toole is explaining to the viewer that “GDP growth alone is not the end-all, be-all of politics” and “the goal of economic policy should be more than just wealth creation — it should be solidarity, and the wellness of families,” one gets the distinct sense that O’Toole’s own brand of conservatism will be different from that of his predecessor.

To be specific, O’Toole seems to have his eye on union voters — GM families, as he says, just like the O’Tooles of yore. This is the same strategy used to great effect by Boris Johnson in the U.K., who won his majority government in large part by breaking through the traditional, working-class “red wall” of Labour supporters. As one leftist publication concluded, “Erin O’Toole’s Labour Day message should worry the left.”

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt

Evidence-based policy needed on gun control

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 28, 2020.

As the Conservative Party of Canada lurches its way to choosing a new leader in August, many are asking what it means to be a conservative, especially an urban conservative.

As party members consider that question, along with what it means to be all different kinds of conservatives, the candidates for leader are being asked how they will create a “big blue tent” large enough for us all.

And no discussion tests the edges of that tent more the issue of guns.

Full disclosure: As Gloria Gaynor famously sang, “I am what I am,” and what I am is an urban, high-rise-living, office-tower-working, gay grandfather whose only connection to guns is through the fake ones we made when we played cops and robbers.

I openly admit that I exist in a place where the idea of gun ownership is remote for me and most of my friends.

And yet, I understand that many others see this issue very differently; that guns mean different things to different people in different parts of this vast country of ours.

I get all that. But here is what I don’t get.

I don’t get our collective reticence, Liberals and Conservatives and others alike, to try something radically different to deal with what is, on the evidence, a growing —growing-out-of-control — problem.

How many times will we have to witness another tragedy liked the one in mid-April when a mass shooter embarked on a 13-hour shooting spree across Nova Scotia?

By the time his attack was over, 23 innocent Canadians who had only the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time had lost their lives. Police recovered five firearms from the suspect’s vehicle: two semiautomatic handguns, two semiautomatic rifles (including a military-style assault rifle), and a Smith & Wesson service pistol lifted off the late RCMP officer Heidi Stevenson.

This horrific event was not, it seems, horrific enough to force a call for a public inquiry into the worst mass shooting in Canadian history. The result? Canadians were left with a great many questions about the shooter and the RCMP’s haphazard response.

The event did, at long last, push Ottawa’s Liberal government to usher through a ban on certain models of semiautomatic rifles.

While applauded by many as a sensible start, it was yet another example of a sad lack of evidence-based policy-making at work when it comes to gun control.

By amending the Criminal Code to ban some of the most popular and well-known models of semi-automatic rifles, including two of the specific types of guns used by the shooter in Nova Scotia, the government took what could, at best, be described as baby steps.

But, in doing so, the government did not bother to ban all semi-automatic rifles — just the ones like the AR-15 that Liberal voters would likely recognize from reading about other mass shootings.

This action seems, to me, to be at odds with what you would expect from a government serious about addressing gun violence, or introducing evidence-based gun control.

Under similar circumstances, Australia took a different approach and introduced a blanket ban. After all, most Canadians who die from gun violence are shot by handguns.

So here is the contradiction. The Trudeau government has won praise from most corners for their evidence-based handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Why not bring that approach to gun control? After all, many thoughtful doctors consider guns to be a significant public health risk.

Instead, by privileging optics over substance, the government’s latest foray into gun control has further politicized the issue.

And in so doing, it may have missed the proverbial boat as a story of another shooting out of California this week described how an ex-con used a “ghost gun” — a home-made assemblage, compiled by ordering the various parts online and assembling a fully functional weapon with no serial number and no oversight.

Whether or not we agree with each other at the starting point of this debate, it is clear that familiar tragedies are now combining with tragedies unimagined to test the mettle of governments. It is also clear that the time has come to put our own biases aside in favour of an evidence-based approach to this crisis.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jimewatt