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In this file photo taken on August 23, 2021 Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O’Toole listens to a reporter’s question during a news conference in Ottawa, Canada. — AFP pic
In this file photo taken on August 23, 2021 Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O’Toole listens to a reporter’s question during a news conference in Ottawa, Canada. — AFP pic

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OTTAWA, Sept 12 — “We have Jillian from Uxbridge (Ontario) who wants to talk about senior care and the rising costs of living,” begins a novel Canadian political livestream that has become a cornerstone of Tory leader Erin O’Toole’s electoral campaign.

Sitting at a desk flanked by campaign slogans and Canadian flags, O’Toole jumps in with tidbits from the party’s plank, holding up a glossy campaign mailer with his photo for the September 20 pandemic-hit election on the cover.

“In our plan, Bob…” he says to another caller, splicing in personal anecdotes, for example, from his years in the military.

The party has transformed a ballroom at a downtown Ottawa hotel into a flashy television studio that O’Toole has used for dozens of virtual town halls and news conferences.

When AFP dropped by this week, the show targeted an audience in the Toronto region.

For 90 minutes, voters were robocalled and asked if they wished to listen in and ask O’Toole questions.

Over the course of the evening, O’Toole covers issues such as soaring housing costs, boil water advisories in indigenous communities, taxes, oil and climate change, child care, and his position on gun bans — which he’d struggled to clarify in previous days.

Campaign spokesman Cory Hann said the callers — about 20-30 per night — are chosen randomly, in a bid to reach voters beyond the party’s base.

But on Tuesday, participants all seemed to lean politically to the right, a few expressing disdain for Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“I love the positive campaign you’re doing,” said Patrick from Richmond.

“My husband and I traditionally voted Liberal, but we’re disappointed with Justin Trudeau,” said Jane from Toronto.

At one point, O’Toole was forced to defend his political rival, saying he’d never promoted hate, as the caller suggested, before adding that Liberal policies, however, have been divisive.

“I wanna heal some of these national unity rifts,” says the 48-year-old former soldier and corporate lawyer, looking directly into the camera, before going to the last caller who says she waited an hour on hold for a chance to ask her question.

Akin to an infomercial or radio talk show, the set-up is familiar to O’Toole as he used it in last year’s Conservative leadership contest.

But in the run-up to the September 20 election, it is unique among the political parties.

Talk show versus road show

“I think the studio has given them a leg up on the other campaigns in terms of reaching voters across the (vast) country,” opined Dennis Matthews, head of Creative Currency advertising agency.

“We’re in this new world where, for a lot of folks, going to a campaign rally isn’t possible because of Covid-19,” he explained. “So a traditional road show may not be practical right now.”

The Liberal campaign at one point reportedly asked supporters to stay home in order to keep smallish the size of crowds at events.

Several rallies were held outdoors, for easier social distancing, but that exposed Trudeau to hecklers and “anti-vaxxer mobs” who threw stones at him this week.

The studio allows O’Toole to reach out to voters — 40,000 watching this night, but an average of 20,000 per broadcast — while minimizing risks of spreading Covid, said Hann.

It also gives the Tories an opportunity to collect data on voting intentions, and target ads better, according to Matthews.

At several intervals during the show the moderator asks participants to indicate if they back the Tories, another party, or are undecided, by clicking on a survey linked to the social media livestream.

In the early weeks of the campaign, the Conservatives’ studio use was met with skepticism as O’Toole’s low visibility during the pandemic had been blamed for his poor approval ratings since becoming leader in August 2020, and pundits felt he needed to get out and meet people face-to-face.

O’Toole himself has expressed a preference for in-person gatherings, saying: “I hear real claps.”

“He feeds off the energy,” said Hann. In the studio, with just a handful of technicians and journalists on hand, “I can only clap so loudly,” he quipped.

O’Toole — now leading in public opinion polls — has still made whistlestops across Canada, tapping elbows with supporters. Hann calculated that he has spent about five days on the hustings and two days in the studio each week.

The Tory leader himself has suggested, however, that his virtual campaign allowed him to reach far more Canadians than he could ever possibly gladhand in person “in a way that’s safe, secure and allows us to talk about our policies.” — AFP

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