Anybody’s Guess Where O’Toole is Taking the Conservatives

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Since he became the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in late August, 2020, Erin O’Toole has taken the party on a wild ride. In the space of less than three months the man originally seen as a pragmatic healer who would bring the various factions of the party together has veered from one extreme to another, leaving many observers breathless at his inconsistency.  Where exactly the party fits on the political spectrum is now anybody’s guess, but opportunism rather than ideology appears to be the prime motivation for many of his pronouncements.

When he was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party, for example, O’Toole re-positioned himself as something of a right-wing hardliner, a Stephen Harper acolyte who was aggressively promoted by Harper’s former lieutenant Jason Kenney. O’Toole appealed directly to social conservatives and promised to be a “True Blue” Conservative leader. Granted, his path to victory was aided by his principal opponent, Peter McKay, when the former Progressive Conservative unwisely referred to outgoing leader Andrew Scheer’s social conservative baggage as an “albatross” around the party’s neck in the 2019 election. Nevertheless those who knew O’Toole from his time in caucus expressed more than a little surprise at his sudden tolerance of social conservative positions.

Yet no sooner had O’Toole won the leadership than he began to play down any connection with the social conservatives who had been a major factor in his victory. No, he maintained, there would be no change in party policy and no re-opening of the various issues which these supporters championed.  Hardly surprising, then, that media commentators began to describe O’Toole as far more moderate than Scheer or Harper. Many concluded he was practically in the centre of the political spectrum. A wise move, they added, which would serve him well in the next election.

But this new image of O’Toole as moderate centrist had no time to take hold before he threw a monkey wrench in the works by questioning the wisdom of the Trudeau government’s CERB program, arguably the most well-known and popular of the Liberals’ pandemic initiatives.  Rather than empathizing with out-of-work Canadians, he questioned the overall cost of the program and wondered whether it was sufficiently stringent to prevent opportunism and fraud. Sensing from the negative reaction to his comments that this was a political blunder, he quickly retreated to regroup.

His next big outing was the reckless venture into the world of Quebec nationalism, detailed in an earlier blog. (“O’Toole’s Conservatives Court Quebec Nationalists at their Peril”). Here he argued in favour of Bill 21, (the controversial provincial law banning religious symbols and clothing) the removal of most constraints on the province’s spending of federal money for national cost-shared social programs, (hello Meech Lake and Charlottetown) and the imposition of Quebec’s language laws on federal institutions and federally-regulated corporations in the province. With this blatant appeal to Quebec nationalists for votes, O’Toole demonstrated he simply has no grasp of the issues, a wrong-headed approach to Canadian federalism that has been proven unsuccessful over and over again.

Shortly afterwards the new Conservative leader began an equally out-of-touch, concerted and lengthy battle against the government’s plan to move legislative proceedings to a virtual parliament format, something most western liberal democracies were already doing.  Meanwhile the other opposition parties sided with the government, arguing that the health and safety considerations of parliamentarians and their extensive support personnel necessitated such a temporary shift. Numerous public opinion polls also suggested that Canadians were expecting their political parties to work cooperatively during the pandemic. But the Conservatives dug in their heels and continued to hold up proceedings by demanding in person sittings of parliament, arguing that MPs should be considered an “essential service” along with clerks, pages, interpreters, political staff, cleaners and all the other workers required to continue to operate the physical space. Even more peculiar was the fact that the alternative Conservative plan was to have merely 40 MPs sitting in the House of Commons, coming from nearby ridings in Ontario and Quebec. This of course would have disadvantaged that party’s own backbenchers the most, since they held the overwhelming number of seats in western Canada, and travel from that region to Ottawa was impossible for most of those MPs during the pandemic.

Despite positive reports from the Speaker and various experts, as well as the House committee examining the issue, in the end Conservative objections to a virtual parliament — ostensibly because they did not trust the technology required for hybrid sessions and then for voting — were only overcome when the NDP and the Green Party supported the government’s plan on a divided vote.  Many observers saw the Conservatives’ opposition as a stubborn resistance to change, but others believed it was driven by political calculations. Since O’Toole had been effectively sidelined by the extensive media coverage of the prime minister’s daily briefings, how else was the Conservative leader to get the attention of the press if not in the House of Commons?          

The answer soon emerged. With parliament scheduled to return in virtual format in early September, O’Toole seized the occasion of a Labour Day speech to put forward “a new Conservative vision.” That vision, he announced to an incredulous audience, was all about fighting inequality.[i] Then he proceeded to attack “all-powerful corporate and financial elites,” (many of whom have long been bedrock supporters of the Conservatives) and “bad trade deals” which had resulted in “unchecked globalization” and “cheap labour.” As one observer concluded, “the Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, the party whose proudest achievement was the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, is now squarely opposed to free trade.” [ii]

Even more astonishing was O’Toole’s sudden commitment to private sector unions, given the long history of anti-union policies adopted by the Harper government and the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives before him. O’Toole himself admitted that “it may surprise you to hear a Conservative bemoan the decline of private sector union membership.” It certainly did. Once again, however, the political motivation for this entirely unconvincing conversion on the road to Damascus was evident. Leapfrogging over the centrist Liberals to vie for the left-wing NDP’s traditional support from labour, O’Toole clearly believed his ploy was a masterstroke rather than a laughingstock.

His response to the Liberals’ Throne Speech and a subsequent speech delivered by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland was at least more consistent with traditional conservative values and issues. Rather than addressing many of the specifics of the Liberal government’s plan to continue expenditures post-pandemic to rebuild the economy,” O’Toole focused on what he perceived to be the dangerously high level of federal debt and emphasized his party would pay this down within a decade. The problem here, of course, is that he and his followers may be the only ones concerned with this issue. As countless economic analyses, including a report from the PBO, have demonstrated, the combination of a low debt-to- GDP ratio and record low interest rates have made the level of debt sustainable for some time. Meanwhile public opinion polls have demonstrated that Canadians overwhelming favour continued high levels of spending.

One commentator summed up the current situation succinctly. “Is the opposition deliberately trying to alienate voters?” [iii]  For members or supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada, another important question might be “Does anyone know what Erin O’Toole stands for these days?”

[i] Bill Curry. “O’Toole Lays Out Economic Shift for Party, Focused on Fighting Inequality.” Globe and Mail. October 31, 2020

[ii] Andrew Coyne. “Erin O’Toole’s Personal Voyage from Pragmatist to Principled Conservative to Populist-nationalist.” Globe and Mail. November 3, 2020.

[iii] Susan Riley. “Is the Opposition Deliberately Trying to Alienate Voters?” Hill Times. November 2, 2020