Opinion

Conservatives have a vaccine problem

Andrew MacDougall: If Erin O’Toole can’t get his caucus to the right place on vaccines he doesn’t deserve to lead the country

Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy, and a former Head of Communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper

You have to hand it to the Conservatives. Having just lost to Justin Trudeau and his Liberals in the federal election, they’re now working overtime to ensure the Grits win the next one by refusing to come clean on vaccines.

We’re now 20-odd months into this pandemic and seven months into the era of mass vaccination, and the Conservatives still won’t say how many of their MPs are vaccinated. Given vaccines are the best way out of our current heavily-prescribed reality, this is akin to admitting you don’t want to drink water after wandering for years in a desert. It’s enough to make the neutral observer wonder if you’re really just messed up in the head.

This isn’t to say there aren’t reasons to sidestep a vaccination. There are valid medical reasons. There are less-valid religious reasons (in terms of public health). But unless those are stated clearly, people will assume more exotic reasons, namely that some people in the party listen to people who are really messed up in the head about vaccines, claiming they’re a bizarre plot orchestrated by Bill Gates or Big Pharma. More importantly, as long as party policy is to keep schtum about vaccinations, it invites people to guess the number of vaccine-resisters in caucus. It might only be a handful. On the other hand, it could be dozens. That the party is obstinate in its silence suggests it’s the latter, not the former. 

READ: Quebec delays its vaccine mandate for health-care workers

For all of the back and forth in Conservative salons about why they lost the last election, not enough time has been spent talking about the elephant in the room: a muddled vaccine policy. What shade of blue Erin O’Toole is pales in comparison, in terms of a factor in the election loss, to the party being offside with 80 per cent of Canadians’ views on vaccinations. Canadians wanted straight talk on vaccines and vaccine policy, and the Conservatives danced around like prime Travolta. It worked as long as the focus was on Justin Trudeau’s unnecessary election call, but once the conversation shifted to the COVID bonfires in Alberta and Saskatchewan it became a weight around the party’s neck.

The drivers of the People’s Party vote had a lot to do with vaccination policies and fears around government overreach. If you want to stick two fingers up to Billy Boy Gates then Maxime Bernier is your man. All the more reason then, for the Conservatives to support vaccines and vaccine mandates ahead of the next election, whenever that should come.

You’d reckon the last thing Erin O’Toole would want to face in the next campaign was a PPC with a raison d’être. Getting past the pandemic is the surest way to inoculate Canada against Bernier and his band of unmasked bandits and steer the conversation back to the places O’Toole was trying to, on jobs, wages and economic opportunity. So get there already.

Getting there would also give O’Toole a chance to demonstrate leadership. That the vaccines work is beyond dispute (even if we’re not yet sure how long they confer protection). That they reduce serious illness and hospitalizations is equally clear. That the side effects are rare and nothing at all when compared to the impacts of COVID-19 infection is clear. So, too, is the fact we’ve used vaccines for decades and made entry to certain places conditional on having them. If O’Toole can’t get his caucus to the correct place on vaccines he doesn’t deserve to lead the country. 

Doing things like objecting to the “secretive” Board of Internal Economy dictating the House of Commons’ position on vaccine mandates for Parliament, as the Conservatives did this week, is to both score a point and miss it completely. Yes, it should have been a vote in the full House of Commons, but that’s not really the objection here, is it? The full vote will come soon enough and then the problem will be laid bare for all to see. 

But don’t Canadians who have reservations about vaccines deserve a voice in the House of Commons? Sure, but there’s no reason that voice can’t belong to someone who is fully vaccinated. We already know the vaccine-resistant and hesitant aren’t responding to the government’s entreaties; watching the Conservatives duck the conversation gives them extra cover. They probably won’t listen to anyone, but surely it’s better to say you’ve tried, especially when the vast majority of Canadians are watching and wondering where you stand.

Like it or not, the only way out of pandemic hell is maximum vaccination. Indulging those who remain resistant will only prolong the pain and economic damage. More importantly for partisans, indulging the laggards won’t increase the share of accessible vote. And with an election coming sooner than later, surely it’s better to fight the next one without any pandemic restrictions in place.