Erin O’Toole became Canada’s Conservative Party leader in August, but he’s already faced his fair share of difficulties.
Middling poll numbers and reports of faltering caucus support raised red flags. Strategic errors, including O’Toole stating residential schools for Indigenous children were designed to “provide education” until it became a “horrible program,” required damage control and an apology.
When some party members countered his attempt to change the public’s view on Conservatives and the environment by voting down a policy resolution acknowledging “climate change was real,” it added to the frustration.
O’Toole’s victory over Peter MacKay for the Conservative leadership had been widely perceived as another in a long line of missed opportunities. MacKay, an experienced politician and ex-cabinet minister, was viewed as a political moderate who could shift party policies from that of former prime minister Stephen Harper and previous leader Andrew Scheer.
With the relatively unknown O’Toole at the helm, some thought the Conservatives should dust off the opposition benches because they’ll be sitting in that dank, musty section indefinitely.
Further from the truth
While some Canadians were unfamiliar with O’Toole, most Conservatives knew exactly who he was. His personal story is unique and inspiring. His political instincts resonate with party supporters and average voters. His leadership is positive and forward-thinking and provides a real alternative to Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
O’Toole’s background isn’t one of wealth and power, but of blue-collar roots and working-class sensibilities. His father, John, worked at General Motors and served in municipal and provincial politics.
“I enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces at 18 and was commissioned as an officer at 22,” O’Toole told me in an email. “I spent several years flying on naval support and search and rescue operations out of Nova Scotia.” His tenures in corporate law and business “showed me the critical roles of entrepreneurs and small business owners in creating jobs.”
His successful leadership campaign united left-leaning Red Tories and right-leaning Blue Tories by focusing on free markets, private enterprise, lower taxes and rebuilding the economy. O’Toole and his campaign team chose issues in a wise, strategic manner.
He hit sweet spots with Conservative supporters by cracking down on crime, supporting a more muscular foreign policy plan, and championing individual rights and freedoms. He also respected party members’ disparate views on abortion and same-sex marriage — which, in turn, has introduced a moderate, balanced vision to appeal to non-Conservative Canadians.
A different leader
O’Toole’s leadership style is notably different from Harper’s and Scheer’s.
“He has a relatable, everyman quality about him ... in a way we haven’t really had in past leaders of the Conservative Party,” said Amanda Galbraith, principal at Navigator and Toronto Mayor John Tory’s former communications director.
How so? O’Toole speaks directly to people rather than above them. Unlike Trudeau, who acts professorial even though his life and work experience are extremely limited, he doesn’t project an image of being the smartest man in the room. O’Toole is intelligent, confident and well-spoken — but without an air to him.
“His ability to draw contrast both on the superficial level and more directionally from a policy perspective with the Liberals in a way that is inclusive and welcoming is a strength his opponents have not been able to neutralise — or frankly even figure out,” noted Melissa Lantsman, vice president at Enterprise Canada and a federal Conservative candidate.
O’Toole, for instance, has attacked Trudeau’s slow covid-19 vaccine roll-out and said the current excessive spending measures are “not something I would support in normal times.” His criticism was measured because, he said, “we are facing more than a health crisis. We are facing the greatest economic crisis of our lifetime.” He also supported “additional flexibility” for businesses in terms of subsidies for commercial rent and wages.
“It’s hard to give stirring speeches on Zoom,” O’Toole acknowledged, “but I’m known for speaking from the heart and from my own experience.”
That’s how O’Toole has the biggest chance of connecting with voters. Dan Robertson, a Pathos Strategy principal, believes this could mean “the Conservative Party becomes the party of working Canadians.”
Former president Donald Trump’s success in rebuilding the GOP working coalition led Canadian Conservatives to refocus their energies in this direction. Walied Soliman, chair at Norton Rose Fulbright Canada, believes this blue-collar vision could “lead a more unified and prosperous nation focused on the prosperity of middle class families.”
O’Toole must balance Red Tory and Blue Tory concerns and keep political factions together. He must focus on fiscal conservatism without ignoring social conservatism, look at the big picture in politics rather than sweating the small stuff.
Ultimately, he should concentrate on Conservatives beating the Liberals rather than themselves. Modelling the party along the lines of Conservative Prime Ministers such as Harper and Brian Mulroney is a daunting task, but it’s doable with hard work, determination and a broad focus.
“I’ve made it my mission to show more Canadians that they have a home in the Conservative Party,” O’Toole wrote.
Michael Taube, a columnist for Troy Media and Loonie Politics, was a speech writer for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper