Toronto Star

O’Toole shifts focus from vaccine policies

Tory leader says Liberal spending fuels inflation crisis

- STEPHANIE LEVITZ

Conservati­ve Leader Erin O’Toole began a session of Parliament on Wednesday by trying to focus attention on the Liberal government’s performanc­e, and away from scrutiny of his party’s COVID-19 vaccinatio­n policies.

In a meeting with his MPs before the first question period of the 44th Parliament, O’Toole went on the attack against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The Liberals have an ideologica­lly driven cabinet and a leader who puts his own needs above those of Canadians, O’Toole told his MPs.

“The Liberal government’s spending is fuelling the inflation crisis,” he said, charging that its “ideology is fuelling division” and that its “platitudes are a barrier to real action.”

With Parliament now in session, the minority Liberal government unveiled new, scaledback pandemic benefits programs. It is also under pressure to move swiftly on other commitment­s, including a bill to ban conversion therapy and stronger gun control legislatio­n.

But there is also political pressure on O’Toole, who is trying to prove that he remains worthy of his party’s leadership despite failing to win last summer’s federal election.

A perception that he did not stand up forcefully enough for bedrock Conservati­ve principles during the campaign underpins some of the dissent that has erupted into public calls for a leadership review.

O’Toole’s steps to quell that dissent have included ejecting Sen. Denise Batters from the party’s caucus after she launched a petition calling for an expedited leadership review.

No Conservati­ve MPs have publicly backed Batters’s effort so far. Some have told the Star it was the start of a broader push to oust the leader, while others say the idea of a major rift in caucus is overblown and they all just want to get to work.

After O’Toole’s speech on Wednesday he was handed a Conservati­ve party-branded hockey jersey with his name on the back and a big captain’s “C” on the chest.

An energized Conservati­ve bench then faced off against the minority Liberal government in a packed House of Commons, where MPs were reminded to mind their tone and their masks.

Conservati­ve zingers about Trudeau’s trip to Tofino on the first National Day for Truth and Reconcilia­tion and “Justin-flation” kept their benches roaring, but the Liberal benches sprang to life when Trudeau took a jab of his own.

Responding to Conservati­ve MP Michelle Rempel Garner’s accusation that he lacked courage and a plan, Trudeau snapped that Canadians sent his government back to Parliament with a clear mandate to end the pandemic.

Then, with a glance across the aisle, he added, “Which happens through vaccinatio­ns, guys.”

The Liberals have made much of the Conservati­ve party’s refusal to reveal the COVID-19 vaccinatio­n status of its MPs prior to the resumption of Parliament.

Some Tories oppose disclosing their vaccinatio­n status on the grounds it is a breach of privacy, while others have questioned the need to make COVID-19 vaccinatio­ns mandatory at all.

But with a vaccinatio­n mandate now in place on Parliament Hill, no Tory MPs have been sidelined due a refusal to get vaccinated. It is believed, however, some have medical exemptions from the requiremen­t.

On Wednesday, several Tories emerged from caucus carrying baggies with fresh masks and take-home COVID-19 tests, a gift several said were made available in case any want to take tests before they return to their ridings.

Conservati­ve MP Richard Lehoux tested positive for COVID-19 last week following two days of meetings in Ottawa.

Lehoux is fully vaccinated, but the possibilit­y that others in his caucus may not be — and could potentiall­y transmit the virus to others on the Hill — has been flagged by the Liberals as a potential health issue, and is one reason they’ve cited for wanting to return to a hybrid Parliament.

A vote on whether to do so will likely take place this week.

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