On the heels of back-to-back leadership debates, the campaign to succeed Andrew Scheer as federal Conservative leader is more than ever Peter MacKay’s to lose.
Going into the debates, the former minister was already the widely perceived front-runner in the race.
But it was a title he largely owed to his credentials as the Tory leader who, along with Stephen Harper, presided over the reunification of the Conservative party and to the decision of a handful of high-profile contenders to take a pass on a leadership run.
MacKay’s mission on the debate podium last week was to live up to his front-runner status.
At a time when the Conservative party has been slipping in voting intentions, he could not afford to give members already rattled by some of his early campaign missteps reasons to flee to his main rival, MP Erin O’Toole.
Over the course of Thursday night’s sedate English-language debate, neither of the two main contenders really laid a glove on the other.
Both offered performances solid enough to reassure party members as to their respective capacities to hold their own against the likes of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
But to emerge from the exercise with the wind in his back, O’Toole would have needed to eclipse MacKay.
That was even truer the night before, on the podium of the French-language debate.
That event — held in a second language that MacKay very publicly struggled with early on in his campaign — offered O’Toole his best and possibly last opportunity to move a crucial chunk of Quebec support over to his side.
The province holds the second-largest number of votes in play in the leadership election and, at the same time, the highest proportion of voters disengaged from the succession battle and the Conservative party itself.
In the lead-up to the debates, many of the province’s Conservatives had yet to make a definitive leadership choice.
The fact that so many Quebec votes were still up for grabs probably goes some way to account for how much more acrimonious the French debate was in comparison to the one held in English the next night.
O’Toole needed to demonstrate that only he had the proficiency needed to survive on a French-language debate podium.
And to do that, he had to get MacKay off his talking points in the hope of causing him to stumble.
Had he succeeded, there might have been a hemorrhage of Quebec support from MacKay’s camp to his own.
Instead, the two pretty much fought each other to a draw.
MacKay still has quite a way to go to become as fluent in French as Harper or Scheer. But then, so does O’Toole. The net result of Wednesday’s debate was to take the language card out of the leadership mix.
Overall, MacKay had as good a debate week as he could have hoped for. The cause of party renewal on the other hand did not fare as well.
The party may be about to change its head cook but, if the debates suggested anything, it is that it is not in the process of rewriting its last election menu.
Take climate change. In the last campaign, the Conservatives lost votes over the perception that they were not serious about the issue.
But if an election were held tomorrow, the plan the party would put forward would be built on the same premises as Scheerís.
As prime minister, OíToole and MacKay would similarly dismantle the climate-change framework put in place by the Liberals, including, of course, the carbon tax.
Both talk a bigger game on pipeline building than on transitioning to a carbon-free economy.
Some Conservatives believe the pandemic and its economic fallout will dispense their party from committing to more heavy lifting on climate change in the next federal election.
They expect/hope for a replay of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when the focus of the electorate shifted to the economy at the expense of climate change.
That shift paved the way to the 2011 Conservative majority victory.
In whole or in part, the aspirants to lead the Conservative party seem to share that assessment.
In fact, with two social conservatives – Ontario MP Derek Sloan and Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis – rounding out the leadership lineup, this weekís debates featured more talk of turning back the clock on abortion and LGBTQ rights than of moving the country decisively forward on climate change.
Torstar Syndication Services
Here’s a reminder for all the politicians at the federal-provincial negotiating table these days: the recovery of our economy depends on immediate changes to child care.
Every day of delay in figuring out how to look after the children of workers in the pandemic economy is a loss for a safe reboot, a drain on productivity and a setback for women in the workforce. And every decision-maker in Canada is well aware of this.
So where’s the political will to put the fix into place?
The money is there.
A new blueprint from a network of policy experts shows it would take about $2 billion to fix the child-care system right away and give parents safe, affordable options to allow them to go back to work.
And that money is already on the table, embedded in a $14-billion offer from the federal government to the provinces to help them with a “safe restart” over the next six to eight months.
But in frequent federal-provincial meetings since the beginning of the month about how to spend that $14 billion, officials and their bosses have not been able to agree on how to divvy it up.
The federal government has listed eight areas of urgent need where it wants to put the funding over the next six to eight months to help the provinces open up their economies: testing, contact tracing, health-care capacity, vulnerable populations (such as seniors), personal protective equipment, child care and municipalities.
But it’s not a given that each of those items would get the same share of the $14 billion. Personal protective equipment, for example, is very expensive and requires more funding than other priorities.
Some areas — such as municipalities — could draw on funding from the provinces. And then there’s the politics. The provinces are arguing for maximum flexibility in spending the money, while the federal government has its list of priorities.
“We still have our work cut out for us,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Friday.
Same as it ever was in the history of the Confederation, but that’s an urgent problem in the pandemic economy.
Business closures have pounded women across the country, hitting service-oriented sectors that tend to be female-dominated harder than others.
Parents who were able to arrange to work from home quickly realized that caring for young children at the same time is unsustainable.
And now that some parts of the economy are gradually reopening, parents who have nowhere to place their children are stuck on the sidelines, at risk of being squeezed out of the workplace.
“There’s no way our economy can reopen, reboot and recover if 40 per cent of its labour market cannot engage the way it did before,” says Brock University’s Kate Bezanson, who wrote the blueprint with former Ontario Liberal adviser Andrew Bevan and Sheridan College’s Monica Lysack for First Policy Response, a network of public policy experts with ideas on how to deal with the pandemic.
The Ontario government’s schooling announcement on Friday opens up a range of possibilities for September, including alternate days in class and online learning, and that underscores the need to quickly figure out a rescue plan for child care, Bezanson says.
She and her co-authors want government money to help re-establish existing, regulated child-care spaces, but with COVID-19 provisions: lower child-to-staff ratios to limit contagion, access to more space to allow for physical distancing, programming in the summer for school-age children to make up for the lack of summer camps, and lots more cleaning.
All that requires extra money and planning, which is proving next to impossible for child-care centres that were already operating on razor-thin margins before the pandemic hit.
“There is a pressing need for comprehensive guidelines for safety practices, and national near-term funding for adequate staffing and cleaning, enhanced wages that attract and retain workers, and additional spaces,” they write.
The federal government already has $683 million flowing to the provinces for child care this year, matched by provincial funding.
Also in play is a Liberal promise during the last election campaign to fund new child-care spots for before and after school. That money should be rerouted right away to summer programming, Bezanson says.
And when all that’s done, federal and provincial leaders need to take a deep breath and realize how important to the economy it is to have a reliable and accessible child-care system, she adds.
“The decisions that governments make in the coming months about child-care system-building will be era-defining, and will have ripple effects,” the authors write.
By all accounts, the federal and provincial governments are progressing toward solutions on the $14 billion — faster than talks might have gone before COVID-19 times, but slowly by pandemic standards.
If they take stock of what’s at stake for the parents stuck at home, pulling their hair out under growing stress and fraying job prospects, they’ll figure out a way to get child care back on track right away.
The economy will thank them — now and in the future.
Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.