Politicians should save their personal attacks for elections

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The Throne Speech made it clear that management of the pandemic was front and centre on the Liberal agenda. To date, that has been a winner for them. For the official opposition to continue to muddy the COVID waters is a huge political mistake.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 29, 2021.

Politicians should save personal attacks for elections.

Canadians claim they don’t like these attacks, but history shows they work.

In the heat of a campaign, tagging someone as a part-time Canadian or just “not in it for you” works.

But we are likely three years away from an election. Using the same tactic on the prime minister makes the official opposition leader look angry and petulant.

Erin O’Toole may have reason to be angry. After all, Trudeau called the election, achieving few gains. But his job is not on the line.

Instead, all the post-election political heat is on O’Toole and his caucus in-fighting.

By attacking Trudeau personally, O’Toole and deputy leader Candice Bergen will likely push the undecided into the Liberals’ corner.

Bergen’s Question Period reference to Trudeau’s penchant for pricing surfboards instead of bread-and-butter issues was nasty.

Of course, the prime minister is not currently doing his own shopping, but neither is the leader of the opposition, whose house and grocery bills at Stornoway are paid for by the Canadian taxpayers.

What O’Toole and company should be examining are Liberal policies. When the attack is hard on issues, O’Toole may actually attract followers, instead of just turning people off.

The decision to run hard on inflation is policy-based and could yield some dividends for the Conservatives.

But the blame being focused on Trudeau and Liberal COVID spending runs counter to what most economists are saying.

There is also a chance that the interest rate spike will be short-lived as post-COVID spending splurges settle down to normal. All this remains to be seen but, in this case, the Conservatives are highlighting a fiscal issue that could differentiate them from the Liberals in a way that the Canadian public will appreciate.

If inflation continues to climb, even though it is a worldwide phenomenon, most people will blame the federal government, putting O’Toole in a good position to say, “I told you so.”

But if the Tory leader wants Canadians to consider a shift toward the Conservatives, he has to get his own party’s house in order.

It was a mistake to make COVID the first order of business in the new session. The Conservative whip asked re-elected House Speaker Anthony Rota to rule on the legality of the Commons Board of Internal Economy’s decision to block unvaccinated MPs from entering the House of Commons precinct.

The Conservative position runs counter to all other parties, which unanimously support the vaccine requirement for all their Members of Parliament. The Conservatives continue to claim they support vaccinations, but do not want to make them mandatory in any sector. They also refuse to provide full disclosure on which of their members have not yet been vaccinated.

By refusing to send a clear message on mandatory inoculations, O’Toole’s party is managing to offend the 80 per cent of the population that has followed scientific advice and gotten a vaccination.

The fact that Members of Parliament won’t reveal their vaccination status is frightening, as Question Period has the potential to become a super spreader event.

Government House Leader Mark Holland has already made noises about the number of Conservatives who have secured medical exemptions from the vaccine. Holland is publicly claiming that the number of Tories who may have already secured medical exemptions is statistically impossible.

No doubt, dubious medical exemptions will likely become another story that will serve to underline just how badly the Tories are offside with the rest of the country.

According to Holland, statistically speaking only one Conservative of the 119-member caucus should be qualifying for a medical exemption from vaccination.

No one knows how many Conservatives have been exempted as the party refuses to say.

But as long as the issue is on the public agenda, and parliament is seized with votes on mandatory vaccines for federal employees and travelers on trains or planes, the Conservatives will continue to be on the wrong side of the issue.

Almost two years into the pandemic, scientific experts are calling on governments to convince people to get vaccinated with hopeful messaging, not fearmongering.

But if Parliamentarians themselves are not on board, how can they possibly convince the country to vaccinate our children and follow up with booster shots when necessary?

The Throne Speech made it clear that management of the pandemic was front and centre on the Liberal agenda.

To date, that has been a winner for them. For the official opposition to continue to muddy the COVID waters is a huge political mistake.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.