The faceoff: what to watch for when a new Conservative team takes the stage in the Commons


When the House of Commons returns in two weeks, Liberal ministers will face questions from a new lineup of Conservative critics appointed by Erin O’Toole.

On Tuesday, the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada announced what he called his “shadow cabinet” of Official Opposition critics. Some are veterans in key files and some have moved to new portfolios.

Daniel Béland, a political scientist at McGill University and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said any opposition leader must consider experience, talent, regional representation and diversity when picking members for the front benches. As a new leader in a minority Parliament, he said, O’Toole must also build party unity after a long, divisive leadership race while bracing for a federal election that could be triggered at any time.

Béland said that explains why O’Toole kept experienced people in key roles, such as Pierre Poilievre in finance. And giving former leader Andrew Scheer an important critic’s role for infrastructure also sends a message about party unity, he said.

“Promoting MPs such as Michelle Rampel Garner and Michael Chong to prominent roles is probably a statement about the need to reward especially talented members of the Conservative caucus while keeping an eye on diversity,” he said.

Here are some of the key match-ups to watch after Parliament reopens Sept. 23:

Erin O’Toole and Justin Trudeau

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole, left, speaks at an English debate during the party’s leadership campaign in Toronto on Thursday, June 18, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, rises during a sitting of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic in the House of Commons Wednesday July 22, 2020 in Ottawa. (Tijana Martin/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The two leaders will go head-to-head in the House for the first time since O’Toole’s Aug. 24 leadership victory. In his first news conference after the win, O’Toole stressed his middle-class roots, working to draw a sharp contrast with Trudeau’s privileged upbringing. 

O’Toole is taking on the critic’s role for middle class prosperity himself. It’s a new portfolio Trudeau created and appointed Mona Fortier to lead.

Robert Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said he expects that O’Toole will continue to contrast his “substance” with Trudeau’s “charisma, charm and appearance.”

“O’Toole, from everything I’ve seen since he’s assumed the leadership, will be attempting to show that he has substance and not necessarily appearance,” he said.

Trudeau has promised to rebuild Canada’s economy with an ambitious green infrastructure and recovery plan. O’Toole has pledged his new team will hold the government to account over its spending and ethics record.

Trudeau also will face questions from Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May.

Pierre Poilievre and Chrystia Freeland (Finance)

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, left, holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is new to the finance file, having been appointed to replace Bill Morneau after he resigned amid an ethics probe into his role in the WE Charity student volunteer grant controversy. Poilievre is a seasoned critic for finance who has been holding regular news conferences to attack the government over its rollout of COVID-19 emergency benefits and its handling of the student service grant program.

Huebert said O’Toole’s decision to leave Poilievre in the high-profile finance critic’s role suggests he is someone who is easy with sharing the limelight.

“I think that says he’s fairly comfortable in his own skin,” he said.

Freeland also will face questions from Bloc Québécois finance critic Gabriel Ste-Marie and NDP finance critic Peter Julian.

Michelle Rempel Garner and Patty Hajdu (Health)

Michelle Rempel Garner, left, is the Conservative critic for health opposite Liberal Health Minister Patty Hajdu. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The health portfolio is one of the hottest in government right now, as Canada continues its struggle against the global pandemic while reopening the economy. Rempel Garner came out of the gate swinging with a statement just after the critics were announced. 

“Trudeau and his health minister’s failures related to the COVID-19 crisis can be measured in the number of Canadian lives and jobs lost. I will hold them to account for their slow and costly initial response to the pandemic, their conflicting and ever-changing health guidelines, and their failure to plan for a second wave beyond the vague threat of having to shut down the economy yet again,” she said.

Conservative commentator Jamie Ellerton said Conservatives and Canadians will be well-served with Rempel Garner holding the government to account on this crucial file. 

“She understands the machinery of government and is among the best communicators in caucus,” he said. 

Hajdu will also face questions from Bloc Québécois health critic Luc Thériault and NDP health critic Don Davies.

Michael Chong and François-Philippe Champagne (Foreign Affairs)

Conservative MP Michael Chong, left, rises in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday, November 1, 2017. Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, right, attends a news conference during an official visit to Switzerland at the Von Wattenwyl Haus, in Bern, Switzerland, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Anthony Anex/Keystone via AP)

Chong was promoted to the high-profile foreign affairs critic’s post. A red Tory who is known not to be hyper-partisan, Chong has been a champion for the cause of democratic reform. He will be the Conservative front man on diplomatic and global issues, including Canada-China relations.

Ellerton describes Chong as “thoughtful and principled.”

“This approach alone contrasts a government adrift on the world stage and is another indicator that Erin O’Toole will bring a serious rethink to Canada’s foreign policy, developing a more robust approach to countering China’s bellicose actions on the world stage,”  he said.

In a statement to CBC, Chong said he looks forward to his new role.

“Foreign affairs matters,” he said. “I know this because during the Second World War, my Chinese father was defended by Canadian soldiers in Hong Kong and [my] Dutch mother was liberated by them. We should never forget the sacrifices made here and abroad in defence of our values and we should stand up for those values, as past generations of Canadians have done.”

Champagne will also face questions from Bloc Québécois foreign affairs critic Stéphane Bergeron and NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris.

Dan Albas and Jonathan Wilkinson (Environment)

Conservative MP Dan Albas, left, rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, right, responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday March 10, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau has said the pandemic offers an opportunity to build a more healthy, resilient, safe and greener Canada, and that an “ambitious” agenda will be laid out in the throne speech. As environment minister, Wilkinson would be a key figure in implementing that plan.

Albas, a B.C. MP, has been a vocal opponent of the Liberal carbon tax and has denounced the government’s “hostility” toward pipelines.

In a statement to CBC, he pointed to many challenges on the environmental front, including the “devastating” impacts of climate change. He cited the rising frequency of floods, fires and other natural disasters, raw sewage being discharged into sensitive marine habitats and vulnerable species at risk.

Albas said the challenges require federal leadership and partnerships with provincial and local governments and First Nations communities — and extended an olive branch to Wilkinson. 

“While there are some seriously significant underperformers at Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet table, I do not consider him to be one of them,” he said. “As the new shadow minister for environment and climate change I am hopeful that we can spend more time focusing on areas where we agree and less time debating our differences. Canadians expect us to get to work for them, and that is what I plan to do.”

Wilkinson will also face questions from Bloc Québécois environment critic Monique Pauzé and NDP environment critic Laurel Collins.

Peter Kent and Carla Qualtrough (Employment)

Conservative MP Peter Kent, left, rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough, right, rises during a sitting of the House of Commons, Wednesday, April 29, 2020 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Qualtrough has been the lead minister for many of the big-ticket COVID-19 economic supports, including the Canada emergency response benefit, and will oversee the transition to other supports as the economy gradually reopens.

Kent said the government has let Canadians down repeatedly with gaps in emergency funding, but his most pressing issue with Qualtrough will be the “scandalous” prorogation of Parliament just days before announcing another $37 billion COVID-19 benefit package.

“In a nutshell, the Liberals generally, from the prime minister down but Minister Qualtrough specifically, can’t find the balance between emergency support funding for millions of Canadians who aren’t working and incentives for them to return to the hundreds of thousands of jobs in businesses that desperately want to re-open,” Kent said. “That’s number one on my accountability priorities list with Minister Qualtrough.”

Qualtrough will also face questions from Bloc Québécois employment critic Louise Chabot and NDP employment critic Daniel Blaikie.

MPs head back to Ottawa on Sept. 23, about five weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament.

Huebert said the government’s moves to limit Parliament’s powers during the pandemic don’t bode well for the opposition critics’ ability to do their jobs.

“As important as these positions should be, I worry about how much of an opportunity they actually will have to get the issues discussed and debated,” he said.

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