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New advocacy group launches pre-election ad campaign against O'Toole, Conservatives


OTTAWA — A new third-party advocacy group is launching an ad campaign aimed at ensuring Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole never becomes prime minister.

The Protecting Canada Project is airing its first 30-second ad, in English and French, on television and online.

The ad predicts that an O'Toole government would cut funding for health care, even as the country struggles through the COVID-19 pandemic, resting that assertion on decisions under the previous Conservative government and O'Toole's support for similar cuts made by current conservative premiers.

The tag line concludes that O'Toole and the Conservatives "are hazardous to your health — at the worst possible time."

Group spokesman Ian Wayne, who formerly worked for NDP leaders Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair, says Protecting Canada was formed by Canadians "with diverse political experience" and a common goal of ensuring the Conservatives don't win the next election.

He says it is backed by "progressive" individuals and organizations who believe it's "crucial" to counter the Conservative-friendly messaging peddled by what he calls "well-funded, extreme right-wing" advocacy groups like Canada Proud.

"This launch is just the beginning," Wayne said. "We will continue to grow our campaign and get our messages to more and more everyday Canadians."

Wayne is listed as a director of the group, along with Don Millar, who has a history of working with Liberals.

Until an election is actually called, Protecting Canada, like other groups, can spend as much as it likes and never disclose where it is getting its money.

Changes to the Canada Elections Act in 2018 impose spending limits on advocacy groups and require them to disclose donors during the three-month "pre-writ period" before an election is called, as well as during the campaign.

But the restrictions assume an election will happen on a date set in the law, about four years after the last national vote. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presides over a minority Liberal government, which could fall well before then if the opposition parties unite against the Liberals in a confidence vote.

The project's first ad alleges that O'Toole voted in favour of a $36-billion "cut" to federal health-care transfers to the provinces. 

The "cut" implemented by Stephen Harper's Conservative government, of which O'Toole was a part, has been a political football for years.

While in power, the Conservatives scaled back the annual six per cent increase in the health transfer to a minimum of three per cent — a move that guaranteed provinces would still get more money each year, though at a slower rate than before. That meant provinces would receive $36 billion less over 10 years than they had anticipated.

The change actually came into effect under the Liberal government, which opted to keep the Tories' formula in place. 

The ad also ties O'Toole to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, a former Harper cabinet colleague who endorsed O'Toole for the Conservative leadership last year and whose popularity has nosedived over his handling of the pandemic.

The ad says O'Toole endorses Kenney's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which they allege includes cutting 11,000 health care workers' jobs. The same approach federally could result in "tens of thousands of health care layoffs across Canada," it warns.

In a statement, O'Toole accused the group of playing fast and loose with the truth. 

"The Liberals are lying about my record because they don’t want to talk about theirs: a record of lost jobs, corruption, and failure on vaccines," read the statement.

"Canada’s Conservatives will secure health care, secure jobs, and secure our future.”

During his campaign to lead the Conservative party last year, O'Toole pledged he'd provide "stable and predictable" funding while respecting provincial jurisdiction.

As the provinces have clamoured for more health-care money from the federal government to manage the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, O'Toole hasn't ruled out listening and has also said the money must flow with no strings attached.

His party did also back a Bloc Québécois motion in the House of Commons in December that called on the federal government to "significantly and sustainably increase Canada health transfers before the end of 2020." 

The "Canada Proud" groups the new advocacy organization mentions are run by a media company that helped O'Toole win leadership of his party last year.

He's since ended his contract with them. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2021.

Joan Bryden and Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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