Sean Kilpatrick/CP Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds his first news conference as leader on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Aug. 25.

COVID-19 aid bill, Tory leader O’Toole’s speech headline Parliament’s first full week

O’Toole’s throne speech reply will recast that approach as a pitch to the country as a whole

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and the Bloc Quebecois chief Yves-Francois Blanchet are expected to take their seats in the House of Commons this week after being benched due to COVID-19.

Their respective replies to the Liberals’ speech from the throne will come as MPs are also set to debate new COVID-19 relief measures — and potentially pass them into law — during the first full week of operations for the pandemic Parliament.

O’Toole’s response to the speech from the throne will be his first statement in the Commons since becoming party leader just over a month ago.

O’Toole used his victory speech as new Conservative leader last month to focus on how he’d expand the so-called “big blue tent” and make the party relevant beyond its base.

His throne speech reply will recast that approach as a pitch to the country as a whole.

Yet while his first comments in the House of Commons as Tory leader will be important, grand speeches delivered on the floor of the Commons matter less in the digital era, suggested Ginny Roth of Crestview Strategies.

Even as he was stuck in his basement, the party was pushing out video clips in a bid to introduce him more broadly to the country.

One was about his mother’s death when he was a child and the pivotal role his hockey coach played in helping him through that time. Another, his message on Labour Day, saw O’Toole make an unusual conservative pitch directly to workers — political turf more traditionally home to the NDP or Liberals.

With people online far more often these days due to the pandemic, direct content can have far more impact than a single speech, Roth said, as being a strong performer in Parliament doesn’t necessarily translate to votes in a general election.

“His biggest challenge is his name recognition, people just don’t know who he is,” Roth said “He’s using the format that works the best for people and seems to access people the most right now: online video content.”

O’Toole’s remarks in the Commons will draw on his experiences waiting to be tested for — and ultimately diagnosed with — COVID-19. But he’ll also use the opportunity to set a tone for how he’ll seek to lead the official Opposition in the coming months and win the country in the eventual next election.

“We’re going to oppose, and we’re going to challenge and hold the government to account,” O’Toole said in an interview last week with The Canadian Press. “But we’re also going to offer some contrasting vision.”

O’Toole’s Tories came out fast against the throne speech last week, arguing it didn’t go far enough to offer support to Canadians impacted by the pandemic. The Bloc Quebecois said absent a federal government plan to transfer billions more for healthcare to the provinces, they aren’t sure they can support it either.

But the NDP have now said that if their demands for a stronger COVID-19 safety net are in the new relief bill before the Commons this week, they will likely support the speech from the throne.

The bill sets up a replacement for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which gave $500 a week to nearly 9 million Canadians during the early phase of the pandemic to help those who’d lost their jobs.

The new approach will provide the same sum — one of the NDP’s conditions — via the employment insurance program.

There will also be a new, temporary Canada Recovery Benefit for those who don’t qualify for EI as well as a sick leave benefit and another benefit for those who must stay home to look after a dependent who falls ill or has to self-isolate.

The NDP have yet to disclose what improvements they managed to secure from the Liberals to the sick leave portion of the bill.

Applications for the recovery benefit are to open Oct. 11 and, for the other two benefits, on Oct. 4.

READ MORE: Opposition blames Liberals as talks around return of Parliament near 11th hour

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


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