O’Toole says $1 million in party funds for downtown election studio was money well spent

Click to play video: 'O’Toole’s election studio cost $1 million in Conservative party funds: sources'
O’Toole’s election studio cost $1 million in Conservative party funds: sources
WATCH: O’Toole’s election studio cost $1 million in Conservative party funds: sources – Nov 25, 2021

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole says $1 million in party funds spent on their downtown Ottawa election studio was money well spent.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, O’Toole said the party needed to prepare for the possibility that the COVID crisis would lock down leaders during the recent federal election.

Click to play video: 'O’Toole says no ‘public money’ was used to fund $1 million election studio'
O’Toole says no ‘public money’ was used to fund $1 million election studio
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“As a leader elected in a pandemic, we had to be ready for a pandemic election … And the studio was a way that we could connect with hundreds of thousands of people and we continue to use it through our party resources during the election,” O’Toole said.

“We had to be ready. And the military guy in me wanted to make sure we were ready even under the most challenging circumstances of a full virtual election.”

Global News reported Thursday O’Toole’s team spent more than $1 million in party funds to run their downtown Ottawa election studio. The spending was approved by the powerful Conservative Fund, and the party’s elected national council was briefed on the costs.

Around the same time in early 2021 that the party was setting up the studio, O’Toole’s office also used taxpayer funds to purchase roughly $74,000 in “video communication and broadcast equipment” alone. Public records analyzed by Global News showed taxpayers footed the bill for $245,141 in communications, audio-visual and telecommunications equipment and services between October 2020 and April 2021.

That’s significantly more than the $68,998 spent on similar products and services by O’Toole’s office in the previous quarter.

When contacted by Global News two weeks ago, O’Toole’s office said “no (Office of the Leader of the Opposition) budget was spent on the set-up/equipment costs for the Westin studio the party used during the election.”

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On Thursday, O’Toole’s office reiterated that no public money went to any “partisan purposes” at the Westin studio.

“No taxpayer money, including video and broadcasting equipment purchased through the OLO, was used during the pre-election or election period for partisan purposes. The equipment in question was used only during the pre-writ period by (O’Toole) and the Conservative caucus to communicate with Canadians and stakeholders virtually, in their role as official opposition,” wrote Josie Sabatino, O’Toole’s director of communications.

“This equipment continues to be used by the Leader of the Official Opposition and the Conservative Caucus for these purposes.”

Click to play video: 'Erin O’Toole says Liberal spending ‘fuelling inflation crisis’'
Erin O’Toole says Liberal spending ‘fuelling inflation crisis’

Alberta Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs – who has publicly voiced disappointment with the party’s 2021 election results – told Global News Thursday that “there should be an accounting on” the decision to spend so much on a studio.

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But Randy Hoback, a Saskatchewan MP and O’Toole’s critic for international trade, said the $1 million was money well spent.

“You do what you have to do in order to reach Canadians, to talk to Canadians,” Hoback said.

“If we would have been in a full pandemic election … Everything would have been done out of that studio, so yes, I think it would have been good use of the funds.”

But veteran conservative strategist Tim Powers told Global News that the studio’s price tag is sure to raise some eyebrows in caucus – particularly among those MPs who want O’Toole gone.

“There are always conservatives who are going to question party spending on election outcomes, more vigorously if the election doesn’t produce a win, and they should do that,” Powers said.

“But I think the nature of the questioning will be more dangerous to Mr. O’Toole because these are loaded questions now being lobbed over at him, principally, I suspect, by people who don’t want to see him continue to lead the party.”

Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer faced his own questions about the use of taxpayer resources after he led the party to defeat in 2019 – questions that hastened his decision to step down.

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But O’Toole’s team’s spending on the election studio does not rate on the same level as using party funds to pay for his children’s private schooling, Powers said.

“Mr. Scheer’s resume was called into question. Mr. Scheer’s citizenship was called into question. Mr. Scheer’s use of party expenditures was called into question … (O’Toole) hasn’t had the same litany of questions to answer, so I think it’ll pass a little bit more easily than the Scheer troubles did,” Powers said.

There are other key differences between Scheer’s experience and the situation facing O’Toole. In 2019, Scheer was the target of party operatives who wanted him gone – but he had plenty of friendly MPs to defend him. There were also plenty of potential replacements in Conservatives’ imaginations – Peter MacKay, Pierre Poilievre, Rona Ambrose, John Baird and O’Toole himself.

In 2021, O’Toole does not appear to be facing the same sort of organized resistance that Scheer went up against. But while plenty of Conservative MPs support his continued leadership, there is a clear anti-O’Toole faction within the caucus.

Sources have told Global News that contingent has a “multi-step” plan aimed at ousting O’Toole, which began with Sen. Denise Batters’ petition to try and force an early leadership review. O’Toole removed Batters from national caucus after she went public with her opposition to the opposition leader.

Senior sources close to O’Toole have told Global News that there was a sense of urgency to prepare for an early election as soon as he became leader in August 2020. One source said Thursday those preparations included the possibility of a campaign where O’Toole could not travel at all.

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“It wasn’t just an election thing, we used (the studio) for six or seven months. The leader couldn’t tour, we were in a pandemic, the leader couldn’t leave the city,” the source said.

“We had no idea if there was going to be an election in the spring. If there was, he couldn’t go to Atlantic Canada … So of course we had to have a studio.”

A senior party source said the 2021 election campaign cost less than previous election years. According to the party, the 2021 Conservative campaign tour cost $3.2 million, compared to $5.2 million in 2019 and $8.7 million in 2015.

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