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John Ivison: Trudeau isn't out of danger yet, but appears to be on way back from pandemic low


The daily question period in the House of Commons is so hackneyed it would typically score a single digit “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

On rare occasions though, it can expose genuine tension. Such a moment came along on Wednesday, as Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole tried to attack Justin Trudeau on his vulnerable heel of vaccine distribution.

“Canada is late,” O’Toole charged, pointing out that this country has vaccinated just four per cent of its population, compared to 20 per cent in the U.S. and 85 per cent in Israel.

It has been a winning position for the Conservatives — the prime minister has seen his approval rating drop five points in lockstep with vaccine supply drying up.

But Trudeau caught the Conservative leader off-guard with some rare good news. He said that 460,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine will be delivered on March 8 and another 840,000 doses will arrive on March 22.

If there are no more supply disruptions — a big if, admittedly — the federal government will be able to honour its promise to furnish the provinces with four million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine and two million of Moderna’s product in the first quarter of this year.

As the news sunk in, O’Toole wore the look of someone who has been waiting for something he just realizes isn’t going to arrive. In his case, it may be his shot at being prime minister.

Trudeau, by contrast, looked like a man adrift who has just spotted a safe harbour.

The Conservative leader has been relying on the prime minister to blunder on vaccine distribution and then offer himself as a credible alternative.

That plan relies on him presenting himself as plausible — a prospect not helped by a new video that emerged on Wednesday . O’Toole is pictured smirking outside the Office of the Prime Minister in Ottawa, saying that he had found more appropriate office space for Trudeau. The camera then pans around to a porta potty that has somehow found its way on to Wellington Street, accompanied by sniggers from the leader and the cameraman. Judging by the weather, it was shot some time ago. Nevertheless, it presents O’Toole as an unserious person at a time when he desperately needs to appear dependable.

While Trudeau is out of favour, O’Toole’s approval numbers are mired, seemingly unable to take advantage of his rival’s mistakes. (Incidentally, the most popular leader in the country by a long way, according to multiple polls, is the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh, which may yet offer the potential for an upset come election time.)

O’Toole’s best hope was for an anti-Trudeau backlash, if his promise of six million doses in the first quarter had fallen flat. It may yet, but the tide of events is flowing in the prime minister’s favour. On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Johnson and Johnson’s single shot COVID vaccine is safe and effective. The FDA will make a final decision on approval in the coming days. Health Canada is still evaluating the J&J vaccine, of which Canada has ordered 38 million doses. But the FDA finding clearly bodes well for that process.

Trudeau is not out of danger yet. Ontario revealed its vaccine rollout plan on Wednesday, saying it will launch an online portal on March 15 that will allow residents to book vaccine appointments according to age, with people aged 80 and over starting in the third week of March and those aged 60 plus starting in the first week of July. That suggests the bulk of the population will not receive their jab until deep into the summer months.

The federal government is hoping that new vaccine approvals for Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca will speed up that timeline, and that any subsequent delays will be blamed on the provinces.

Every day that Canadians hear about peer countries putting vaccine into arms, while they wait for theirs, is precarious for the government.

But there is a sense that a storm has been weathered.

After the inglorious abstention in the genocide vote on Monday, the past two days will have been a welcome relief for the prime minister. His virtual meeting with President Joe Biden went well and allowed Trudeau to crow in the House about how the two men will “build back better together.”

As usual on these occasions, there was a lot of diplomatic humbug. Yet there appeared to be genuine affection in the tweet issued by the White House. “When I met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016, I said the world needed more leaders like him. A lot has changed since then but my sentiment remains the same. I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish in the years ahead,” said Biden.

If every Canadian prime minister is faced with three dilemmas — the economy, unity and the U.S. — Trudeau is well on the way to easing any concerns about the latter.

The prime minister has had an unsatisfactory pandemic. My colleague, Tristin Hopper, aroused the ire of the “Liberal Party, right or wrong” crowd by suggesting that the Trudeau government’s efforts should be labelled a failure, since it has spent more money than anyone else “and ended up in a situation where you’ll be experiencing death and economic collapse for 30 weeks longer than any other country with similar resources.”

That may be so, but Trudeau is still afloat. If he can keep an even keel until vaccines have been distributed to the provinces, as he appears to be well on the way to doing, he will be hard to sink.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021

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