Exclusive Interview: The Line chats with CPC leader Erin O'Toole
On revisiting the Netflix tax, anti-trust legislation, COVID-19 rapid testing, and the carbon price that isn't a tax.
This week, Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole chatted with Line columnist Jen Gerson to discuss a range of issues, from C-10, to climate change and COVID-19. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jen Gerson: Okay, so let’s start. I just have four basic questions here. Let’s start with C-10. There’s been lots of criticism about the Liberal amendments to the Broadcasting Act. That’s fine. I’ve written about some of them myself, but what do you see as the government’s role in internet regulation, and how would you approach the Broadcasting Act differently?
O’Toole: Well, I think you can support an equal playing field between Canadian content creators and the huge American web giants without encroaching on the social media presence and footprint of Canadians. And that’s where I think the government totally lost the plot with C-10. The minister has contradicted himself several times and it’s clear they view people with a major presence online as a broadcaster and worthy of regulation. That should scare people because it’s a major change to how we’ve used the Internet really over the last generation. This is the way people communicate, the way people advocate, the way people build communities, the way people hold governments, police, everything to account. When you’ve had that for years and the government wants to start restricting it, that should concern people.
JG: What do you think is the appropriate role of government in creating that equal playing field? What would you prefer to see instead here?
EO: Well, I’ve been saying we have to govern or provide a government-in-waiting in 2021. And so the GST, for example, on American streaming services. We’re looking at our previous positions on that because we first started talking about the “Netflix tax” years ago.
Well now, my kids do not watch television. My son Jack, he watches other people play video games on YouTube. I don’t get it but that is the reality. The last family movie we watched was a streaming movie and so the world is changed and so we have to have some balance. And I’ve talked about how it’s been unfair for domestic streaming services, particularly Francophone services which, of course, with only seven million people in an ocean of 600 million in North America we need to preserve that important cultural access.
I think we need to look at taxes, look at advertising, look at content-creation rules. Some of the companies, the big players like the Amazons and the Netflix, are doing a lot of production in Canada, but how can we look at levelling the playing field from everything from tax treatment, how revenues are looked at as an expense, right through to content generation and use of Canadian talent? I think we have to look at it all, but you can do that, Jen, without touching at all people’s own ability as a Canadian to comment or to post something or to sing or to do a dance routine. It is the latest form of freedom of expression and the government shouldn’t put it to some bureaucrats in the CRTC to regulate it.
JG: So, your position here is that the existing general requirements for CanCon are generally sound. You would build on that?
EO: I think we have to have a wholesale look at it. I think there’s a need to look at everything and how can we allow people to have free choice and how can we also cultivate up-and-coming artists. I think the digital revolution allows us to rethink this because this isn’t four or five large radio conglomerate companies controlling what music is played on the radio. There are so many different services and options and some artists are putting their things out on YouTube. So, how can we take a wholesale look at this? I’m really proud of Canadian content. It’s funny the Liberals are trying to attack this. I’ve been a big proponent of our theatre excellence, a big supporter of Stratford, a big supporter of Canadian music. One of our MPs is going to be bringing a private members bill on supporting Canadian authors and innovative ways to approach that. I think people are going to see Conservatives are very much in favour of Canadian content, but I think we can develop that without restricting rights.
JG: The other thing I was going to say is one of the big conversations that’s starting to emerge here is how we approach the extraordinary and arguably monopolistic power of Big Tech. There’s been lots of conversations about regulating Big Tech. Where do you see Canadians’ role there?
EO: Well, we’ve been reaching out, Jen. Talking to folks in Australia. We’ve been looking at the French model in terms of using intellectual property and author copyright. I think everyone recognizes there needs to be a degree of making the playing field a little more equitable. Also, I think there has to be a conversation about privacy of Canadians’ personal information, microtargeting and the tracking of eyeballs and these sorts of things, and algorithms as well.
JG: Political groups do this as well.
EO: Oh yes, absolutely. But there’s a clear sort of connection with the political goal which is communicating policy in the right place at the right time and persuasion.
JG: Surely, you’re not going to strip yourselves of your ability to engage in these kinds of tactics — microtargeting and the like?
EO: Well, what’s interesting — I don’t know if you saw the decision in the federal court this week. We were successful in defending our position against the CBC which launched a lawsuit against us in the 2019 election. And that had to do with copyright and fair use and we were very happy to win, and I think it’s a win for all Canadians because it says if a politician goes on a media source and makes a promise and then you want to hold them to account for this promise, you can use that clip or that exchange. That’s part of the discussion of data, of intellectual property.
What I think is concerning to some people is the collection of data and habits and all these sorts of things. Do you have full knowledge about what’s happening with respect to you? And I think particularly when it’s foreign large players, the web giant or the others, there needs to be a look at this. Our economy, the way we engage online, is not going to retreat back. It is transformative. So I think we have to look and see how we can avoid interfere with consumer choice and still provide certain protections.
The C-10 approach was a disaster. The minister doesn’t even understand his own bill so that’s why I recently said, “Look, we’re going to try and amend it and raise our issues.” But in a minority it looks like they’re going to get the Bloc and the NDP to help them because they’re trying to say you have to have your liberty restricted in order to help artists. I think that’s not only wrong, it’s disingenuous that those are saying this. But I’ve said we’ll revoke it in government because the freedom of expression is of paramount consideration and I think we can regulate and take a bigger look at the wider issues in the digital space.
JG: I’m just conscious of time here! We have a lot to talk about. But on this for a bit longer: one of the things that conservatives are very concerned about with Big Tech is the seemingly capricious or arbitrary banning of certain people from the public space. The idea or the concern that, for example, certain kinds of news stories or certain kinds of provocative commentators from the conservative side are just getting wiped off of platforms and payment services without any real appeal. The concern around that being that as these types of Big Tech companies have an increasingly monopolistic role over the public sphere, there’s a fear that there’s been a homogenizing of opinion that is being essentially by these companies. Do you think there’s a role for government there in terms of forcing these companies to be more transparent about who they’re blocking and why or what they’re shadow banning or why? Opening up their algorithms to what gets discovered and what doesn’t. I mean where do you see Canada’s role in that?
EO: I think it is an important part of the discussion now about how to regulate some of the giants and you nailed it, Jen, when you talked about their monopolistic position. This can be regulated from an antitrust perspective and when it intersects with this cancel culture approach of whoever Twitter says we have to block. That should concern people because there’s a bit of a mob justice approach. And I’ve long said a lot of what we see online, particularly on Twitter, cannot be sourced because the anonymity.
There are foreign actors also playing in this space. We’ve got to realize that there is gas being thrown on fires by people that just want to see chaos in our democracy. And so to allow one or two decision makers at a monopolistic major giant to somehow determine in their point of view who is going to be able to sell off their platform or use PayPal or have a presence, that should concern people. The size is so big now you can’t just say, well, you’ve opted into the terms and conditions. When it becomes the new public square and they’ve commoditized and made billions because of that, there’s an antitrust role that I think conservatives recognize. Having strong antitrust laws is not only good for the free market over time. In this case it can also help with the free market of ideas and of liberty.
Whenever I talk about cancel culture I wait for the calls for me to be cancelled because I’ve raised it. But I think that’s what conservatives are willing to do. We’re willing to have these important conversations. I say to my team let’s always have them in a way that’s informed and respectful. And so far I haven’t had perfection with it but we’re going to continue to stand up for these things and I think Canadians want that. They don’t want a government that defers to Twitter on what it should do, and at times I think that’s what the Trudeau government does.
JG: So you see a the role for addressing this (through) antitrust legislation?
EO: Yes. And there’s a lot of governments looking at it from that vantage point as well. And, of course, Europe is further out in front. … We’ve already used this, Jen, with respect to the grocery chains squeezing their suppliers in the midst of the pandemic. I’m a free-market person, but when that happened we spoke out and Lianne Rood, our Shadow Minister, was terrific on it. So much so that Sobeys said that they weren’t going to follow the other oligarchic players. I think sometimes raising these issues, particularly when there’s such dominance of a few players, is a way that conservatives are actually standing up for a more free market and for innovation because if things are just too big nobody can break through and there can’t be competition.
JG: Do you mind if I ask a little bit about pandemic stuff?
JG: Cool. How close do you think we are to the end of the pandemic?
EO: I’m going to give you a very political answer to that, Jen. A very truthful answer. This will be a managed end to the pandemic and what I can’t stand with the Liberal government’s approach, with their little slogan of a “one-dose summer” … It’s almost like they think this is a hashtag game, going back to taking their direction from Twitter.
We had a debate that Michelle Rempel-Garner helped bring about a month-and-a-half ago on a safe, swift and data driven reopening. I was attacked. “How can you even possibly talk about reopening. We’re in the third wave.?” (But) what are the health measures? What’s the level of vaccination? What’s the level of community spread before we can start having partial re-openings? Let’s do that. Do we have rapid screening and testing to start domestic flights and to allow some tourism and concerts.? You look at those kids in the nightclub in the U.K. and you just realize man, we screwed this up.
Mr. Trudeau still hasn’t delivered the promises he made from the first wave. How’s the (contact tracing) app? Does anyone talk about the app anymore? Everything they’ve touched, Jen, has been a disaster and now they just want people to lockdown longer and longer and longer and longer. And anyone that even questions that is somehow reckless.
Let’s have a plan to safely but swiftly reopen using the data. So your question when is the end date of the pandemic? Well, probably a year from now because there will be little outbreaks and variants and we’re going to have to manage and eradicate those quickly. That’s why we need a nationalized system of rapid screening and testing.
The closest I’ve seen to a plan has been Premier (Scott) Moe’s approach in terms of reopening in Saskatchewan.
JG: Why does the federal government even need to be managing this at all? Shouldn’t we just leave it to the provincial governments to decide for themselves what their local populations should be doing and how they should be managing this?
EO: No, and I said this early on in my time as opposition leader. Minister (Patty) Hajdu still doesn’t seem to realize that the border is critical in a pandemic. Since the Middle Ages they’ve been controlling the border to stop the spread of pandemics. And she said that was ineffective at the beginning of the outbreak. The federal government’s jurisdiction is key here on the border.
COVID-19 got into Canada from external places. Then we have travel within the country.
(Then we have) the approval of rapid test, a diagnostic test… Those are medical devices. They’re not cancer drugs. They have a margin of error but they’re a tool and the government did nothing on them. My first day in the House my first two questions were on reconciliation. My next ones were on rapid testing and screening because we’re months behind other countries. In the U.K. you’re going to be going to a concert, you’ll do a rapid test, 15 minutes, there you go. Most Canadians haven’t even seen a rapid test.
JG: I think the way that this pandemic ends probably looks something like this: essentially we hit the end of this third wave. Case rates start to go down dramatically as they’re already starting to do as our vaccination rates go up. And the provinces just say “screw it, we’re reopening.” And I increasingly suspect the federal government is not going to get much of a say in it at all.
EO: Well, because they’ve been absent, as I said on, [vaccines, rapid tests and screening and information]. They’ve failed on each one. And as I said I’m not the federal-interventionist-type leader, but there’s direct jurisdiction on the border, on all federal institutions and on Health Canada approvals.
Who is acquiring vaccines? Who is approving them and who is distributing them? The Feds. Same with rapid tests.
The best leadership I’ve seen from a public-health perspective has been Dr. Bonnie Henry and just last week I think she finally said yes, we don’t need a nurse or a nurse practitioner to administer a rapid test that most countries are letting teenagers administer them on themselves. (The federal government) has never been ahead of any part of this crisis and Canadians are paying the price … they’ve set the provinces up to fail.
So, I think you’re right. The fatigue out there is crazy so the provinces are facing the resistance from the slow federal response, but I think we can still get in place those tools to have a really data-driven smart reopening.
JG: Talking about the pandemic stuff it’s been very interesting here in Alberta because we’ve had a much more vocal section of the UCP caucus advocating against lockdowns, yet we have a sort of centre-centre left coalition here in Alberta that believes the conservative government hasn’t been restrictive enough. I think that Jason Kenney has really just fallen into this uncanny valley where he’s not being anti-lockdown enough for his most conservative base and he’s not being restrictive enough to placate doctors and the centre left — the uncanny valley of everybody hates Jason Kenney. To me it just highlighted the challenge that I think the conservative leaders at the provincial level face of trying to bridge the gap between what their most conservative minorities within their (coalitions) may want them to do, and the realities of where they have to govern from, which is in Canada frequently the centre. Do you see a similar kind of dynamic playing out at the federal level and how do you plan to approach that problem?
EO: I see a similar problem. I would add to your analysis there two other critical factors. One, the rural-urban split, which is often left vs. right, too. Where were the lower (COVID-19) case counts? Generally, early on in the pandemic, there were fewer cases in rural areas. And so they didn’t see the risks from the same frame of mind that people that were living in cities did. So, it further exacerbated differences, which makes it hard for any politician to be honest.
The other thing going back to the beginning of our conversation. The isolation and increased use of social media has further created a divide between people that just follow people in their own preference bubble. “They say there’s no cases here. Why are we locking down?” And then people in the city: “Why is anybody not wearing a mask in some rural town with ten people and no cases? Like, how dare you fail our country?”
And they became two solitudes getting further and further and further apart. And this is where, I think, some of the public information work, particularly federal, has failed completely. When you had people seeing early signs on social media about using masks and you had the federal health minister and her team saying don’t wear masks for a couple of weeks it caused a lack of trust in some of the direction.
I think this has to be the biggest lesson learned; the Trudeau government shut down the (Global Public Health Intelligence Network) the early warning system — they just were not listening. When Minister Hajdu was still saying there was no risk of COVID in Canada, I know of at least five departments of the federal government that knew that a pandemic was starting, and the public were being misled or ignored. I think that various flip flops and things on this has created this growing sense that people just follow what their own preference bubbles are telling them. And it makes it hard to try and get ahold of something like this. I think the provinces have done their best. I do think conservative voters tend to be more individual liberty minded, but I don’t think a single one of them wants to see someone sick or ill or suffer from COVID. So, the two sides have not made it easier for us to find balance.
JG: I’ve eaten up more time than I allotted so my really quick question is that there’s been some polling data to come out on climate change generally showing that the general public in Canada, I mean the boat has left the harbour on climate change. People want to see action on it. But it seems to me there is still a significant section of the conservative base that’s very reluctant to do any real action on climate change. Obviously I know that you have put together a non-tax carbon tax, but how is that something that you plan to address going forward? Do you think that the current policies that you’ve announced already are going to be enough to address those issues or do you think there’s going to be more coming?
EO: When you say significant portion, I don’t agree with that, Jen. There is a portion, but significant makes it sound like a majority. Conservatives don’t want it to be a (carbon) tax and they want to make sure that we support particularly our energy sector, and particularly their efforts to reduce carbon intensity. Our plan, I think, strikes that balance. It was a change for us to price carbon for consumers, but I’m willing to take a bit of heat and explain to people look, this is not a cap in trade. This is not a tax — either from a legal definition or Webster’s Dictionary.
Now it is a price. I’ll take the hit for that, but we wanted a modelled plan and we needed to factor in the 60 per cent of emissions that are the consumer and the non-industrial level. And so we modelled a plan that I think was innovative and will meet our Paris targets, but have vastly better jobs investment numbers than the Liberals. I’m actually proud of the plan. We’ve gotten some criticism but we’ve gotten praise from some corners that don’t generally lean conservative.
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