Politics

O'Toole says his 'Canada First' strategy means economic self-sufficiency, getting tough on China

A Conservative government would pursue a "Canada First" economic strategy that would prioritize the needs of working families and take a harder line against China in international affairs, new Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says.

Policy would share some aspects with Trump's 'America First' approach, but with some key differences

Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos speaks to new Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole about the pandemic response, the environment, and his economic strategy, among other topics. 17:15

New Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says his plan for a "Canada First" economic strategy would prioritize the needs of working families and take a harder line against China in international affairs.

O'Toole made the comments in an interview with CBC's Power and Politics host Vassy Kapelos that aired Tuesday.

"We have to put Canadian working families first," O'Toole said. "I'm going to do that, from trade to our own domestic economic response post-COVID."

The MP for Durham in Ontario was elected leader of the Official Opposition last month at a leadership convention marred by delays due to malfunctioning mail-opening machines. He has since moved swiftly to put his mark on the party and its message ahead of the return of Parliament later this month, appointing key allies to leadership positions and assembling a team of critics.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will unveil the Liberal government's plans for an economic recovery in a speech from the throne on Sept. 23 that's expected to rely heavily on policies to tackle climate change. A fall election could be called if the government loses a confidence vote following the throne speech.

When asked whether his economic plan would differ from U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" policy — which has seen the president slap tariffs on Canadian imports of steel and aluminum and start a trade war with China — O'Toole said it wouldn't.

"No, it's not different at all. In fact, there's more self-sufficiency," he said. "More self-sufficiency in [personal protective equipment], more ability to have food security, energy security."

WATCH: Erin O'Toole on his 'Canada First' strategy

Power & Politics asks Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole if his “Canada First” policy is different from Trump’s “America First” policy. 6:26

O'Toole said he would pursue strategies similar to those adopted by the Ontario and Quebec governments since March, which promote domestic production of key items needed to ensure health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, including medical masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

But O'Toole said his approach wouldn't stray as far into protectionism as Trump's has.

"I'm more of a free trader than what we see in the United States right now," O'Toole said. "We see some protectionism and we really see a couple of large corporate interests being advanced. That actually hurts a lot of middle size employers in both the United States and Canada."

O'Toole said that while he disagrees with some of Trump's economic policies, he agrees with his hardline approach to China.

O'Toole accused China of dumping steel and said Canada shouldn't rely on the Asian power to supply goods necessary to combat a possible second wave of COVID-19.

He said an O'Toole government would work closely with allies like the U.S., U.K. and Australia to present a united front against China.

"We have to be eyes-wide-open with China," O'Toole said. "If I'm prime minister, we will have a serious, mature approach with China that I think shows our concerns with them on the global stage."

Commitment to Paris Agreement targets

O'Toole also committed during the interview to meeting Canada's greenhouse gas emissions targets under the Paris Agreement, which he pointed out were set by the previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper.

To get there, though, O'Toole said he would let the provinces take the lead.

"[I'm] committed to that through partnering with provinces, not an Ottawa-knows-best approach as we've seen with the carbon tax," said O'Toole.

WATCH: O'Toole says he would partner with provinces to reduce emissions

Power & Politics speaks to Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole about his environmental policies, including if his government would committed to the Paris Climate targets. 3:21

O'Toole's platform during the election called for scrapping the carbon tax and replacing it with a climate policy founded on market-based principles and focused on making industry pay, rather than taxing individual Canadians.

The issue of climate policy dogged the Conservatives during the last federal election campaign. Former leader Andrew Scheer said the party's environmental plan was Canada's best chance of meeting the Paris targets — but it set no targets for greenhouse gas reductions

"The Conservatives will have a serious plan that is not a tax on families and businesses, that will get our emissions down by partnering, by being strategic and and taking it seriously, but not through just a tax mechanism," O'Toole said.

Criticizing the Liberal pandemic response

O'Toole said there were major flaws in the Liberal government's response to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CERB — which pays $2,000 per month to people who were out of work because of COVID-19 — started paying out weeks before the wage subsidy did. The wage subsidy originally was set at 10 per cent but later increased to 75 per cent after the program came in for criticism.

O'Toole said that lag between the launch of the CERB and the wage subsidy meant many people lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic.

"Employers who didn't think the government was going to have a serious wage subsidy program let people go because they knew the CERB was there," O'Toole said. "My approach was, let's put as many jobs in hibernation as possible so that they're there for full employment or as close to it coming out of the first wave. That's what they got wrong out of the gate."

When the CERB ends on Sept. 27, the Liberals plan to transition people collecting it to employment insurance (EI) and to set up separate benefits for people who don't qualify for EI.

O'Toole said he agrees in principle with expanding EI, but said his party will look to make improvements. 

"We have to learn about what they did wrong, but let Canadians know we're going to have everyone's back as we emerge from the toughest challenge we faced in my lifetime," said O'Toole.

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