Canada Chris Selley: Grumbling over O'Toole's leadership might be overblown — but it's not unjustified
Conservatives' Erin O'Toole hitting turbulence after six months as party leader
OTTAWA — The fight to win the leadership of his party could be nothing compared to what Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has ahead: keeping his party together as he tries to win over voters who haven't voted for it recently. Caucus morale is buoyed by this week's House of Commons vote in favour of a motion declaring a genocide against Uighur Muslims in China. But the Tories remain stuck behind the Liberals in the polls and the Liberal war room is revving up to keep them there.
Multiple reports suggest there is widespread disgruntlement in federal Conservative ranks. Among social conservatives, there is a sense of betrayal at Derek Sloan’s abrupt dismissal from the party, by a vote of conservative caucus no less, for his alleged “pattern of destructive behaviour.” Apparently this wasn’t what so-cons had in mind when they parked their final-round leadership votes with “true blue” Erin O’Toole.
In response, The Globe and Mail reports, social conservatives are trying to fill as many of the 4,000 delegate positions as they can at the party’s upcoming policy convention. This could “undermine (O’Toole’s) leadership,” the Globe observed.
MacDougall: O’Toole needs to spark up a few big ideas, not just wait for Trudeau to slip
What goes up must come down but something coming down doesn’t guarantee something else shooting up. Welcome to the non-Newtonian game facing Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. Justin Trudeau’s ratings might be dropping while vaccines aren’t plunging into arms, but O’Toole’s not rising because of it. At least not yet. Sensing an opportunity, the Conservative Party is using this vaccine-poor moment to take a fresh run at introducing their man to the public, issuing a number of videos highlighting O’Toole’s life and experience. It makes for a nice story and there’s much to like about O’Toole.
There is also deep and wide disagreement within caucus over Bill C-6, which would ban advertising or profiting from “conversion therapy.” Some social conservatives oppose it outright; other MPs (correctly) argue that it needs much more clearly to exclude from its ambit parental and professional discussions, particularly about gender dysphoria.
Some in the western base, meanwhile, are worried O’Toole might be going soft on climate policy: having signalled his support for the Liberals’ “net zero” ambitions, they fret he might apostatize on the carbon tax. Speaking of campaign promises: When Canadian Press recently inquired about the status of O’Toole’s pledge to eliminate funding for CBC News, a spokesperson said only that “Conservatives are committed to ensuring the best path forward for Canada’s news sector.”
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‘Crumbling 24 Sussex Drive’ problem has an easy fix. Tear it down Re: From vaccines to pipelines to clean water on reserves, why Canada can’t seem to get anything done , Tristin Hopper, Feb. 22 I have no suggestions for a simple way to fix the problems with military procurement or public transportation. But the “crumbling 24 Sussex Drive” problem has an easy fix. Tear it down and build a suitable replacement; presumably for considerably less than $100 million. The address is meaningful to most Canadians. But the building itself? I doubt one in 10 could pick it out from a lineup of similar stodgy grey mansions. It’s not the White House.
The National Post’sfiscal-conservative hawks within the party are dismayed by Pierre Poilievre’s recent removal as finance critic. If anything, those hawks have been surprisingly quiet. O’Toole has not been subtle in distancing himself from basic, longstanding (if not always consistently applied) conservative positions on free trade (“we have to put Canadian working families first”), free markets (“do we really want a nation of Uber drivers?”) and big labour (“an essential part of the balance between what (is) good for business and what (is) good for employees”). It made no sense for him to have a Milton Friedman acolyte as finance critic in the first place.
The polls certainly aren’t encouraging for federal Conservatives. Alberta’s and Manitoba’s New Democrats are mounting credible threats to incumbent governments, after all. Why can’t O’Toole?
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But it may well all be overblown.
Rare is the caucus free of disgruntlement, and many of us are crankier than usual at the moment, what with one thing and another. Dissatisfaction is the natural state of social conservatives in the Tory party, because they never accomplish anything. And some reports certainly bespeak the low bar Canadian media set for caucus controversies: It’s natural that Conservatives would divide on C-6, for example.
If discontent is unusually high within the base, it could be spun positively: O’Toole can’t widen the party’s appeal without vexing some in the existing base. It’s not like they’re going to vote Liberal.
It gets trickier when those efforts involve O’Toole shamelessly breaking promises to those who elected him leader. But what the bedrock Conservative base wants more than anything else is to see Justin Trudeau kicked out of office. In pursuit of that goal, it will tolerate extreme levels of cognitive dissonance — though embracing a carbon tax might stretch those limits right to the breaking point. A major reason the Conservative base hates carbon taxes is precisely because Trudeau supports them. Patrick Brown’s apostasy on the carbon tax was one of the main reasons Ontario Tories were so happy to dance around the flaming wreckage of his leadership.
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O’Toole insisted this week that a pro-carbon-tax policy is not on the table. But there is longer-term peril here, if not for the party then for the electorate.
Today’s Conservatives seem almost as misguidedly certain that a critical mass of Canadian voters despise Justin Trudeau as Stéphane Dion’s and Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals were (and Trudeau’s Liberals still are) that a critical mass of voters despised Stephen Harper. They consider defeat in the next election an unthinkable, unforgivable prospect.
But O’Toole might well run a perfectly decent campaign and still wind up second in a majority parliament — especially if that campaign unfolded amidst the newfangled euphoria of herd immunity. There would be no shame in that, but there could be lasting damage.
Harper’s latter-days niqab fixation, combined with Andrew Scheer’s and now O’Toole’s naked pandering to Quebec nationalists who can’t abide teachers wearing hijabs or Crown attorneys wearing kippas, has cost the party its reputation as a stalwart defender of religious freedoms. If O’Toole fails to win while unmooring the Conservatives from positions as basic as free trade and free markets, where would that leave the party?
We already have one party that will say and do anything to win, migrating all over the political spectrum as needed. We do not need another. If malcontents within the Conservative Party of Canada are unwilling to let it become one, that’s good news, not bad.
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The West Block — Episode 25, Season 10 .
Watch the full broadcast of The West Block from Sunday, March 14, 2021 with Mercedes Stephenson.Episode 25, Season 10