• Dec 18, 2020
  • Insights

Erin O’Toole’s 2021 to-do list: broaden the base


Written by Yaroslav Baran and Geoff Norquay for Policy Magazine. Click here to read the original.

While Canadians may not have greeted Erin O’Toole’s August election as leader of the federal Conservative Party with an outpouring of Erinmania, they did have a few other things on their minds. Since then, O’Toole has been defining himself as an alternative to Justin Trudeau in anticipation of an election that could come any time. Two of the shrewdest Conservative strategists in Canada, Earnscliffe’s Geoff Norquay and Yaroslav Baran, lay out the perils and potential for O’Toole as the new year dawns.

It is a truism of electoral politics in Canada’s four-party system that governments get elected when they reach the 36 to 38 percent threshold in the popular vote. With the Liberals lately averaging roughly 36 per cent in support, the Conservatives constantly at around a third of the vote and the NDP at 17 per cent—give or take a point or two—elections are, more often than not, decided by which party has the more “gettable votes” or room to grow in the margins beyond those bases. 

These prevailing trends in popular support usually leave the Conservatives with two choices: hope and pray for a strong NDP to siphon centre/left votes away from the Liberals, or expand their base. Newly elected Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is beginning to address this perennial challenge through a series of initiatives to broaden the number of Canadians who are willing to give the Conservative party a chance.

As 2021 begins, these efforts are a work in progress, hastened by a loudly ticking clock. Depending on a timely and successful rollout of the vaccines that will stem the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave, Canada could well be in an election shortly after the spring budget, either because the Liberals want one, or the opposition parties see the opportunity of electoral gains at the Liberals’ expense.

The boldest of O’Toole’s outreach efforts is to working class and lower middle-class Canadians. The strategy is based on recent trends observed in the United States and the United Kingdom that have seen working-class voters increasingly abandon traditional voting patterns and cross from the left to support the right. This is not a pie-in-the sky gambit. In 2016, Donald Trump’s appeal to the “left-behinds” living in “fly-over states” fuelled his presidential victory. In 2019, Boris Johnson won a majority by breaching Labour’s “red wall” stronghold in Britain’s north with a successful appeal to working-class voters.

The new Conservative leader has begun courting private sector labour unions in the services and the skilled trades to build bridges, describing them as an “essential part of the balance between what was good for business and what was good for employees” in a recent speech. This labour outreach is not without challenges. O’Toole has to live down something Harper got wrong in courting these voters: legislation designed to undermine and weaken unions under federal jurisdiction. O’Toole’s own promise to party faithful during the recent leadership campaign to be Unifor President “Jerry Dias’s worst nightmare” may not be helpful. 

Perhaps to keep faith with the party’s more “regular folk” supporters, O’Toole’s appeal at times has a distinctly populist tinge. In his October Canadian Club speech, he claimed that “middle class Canada has been betrayed by the “elites” pursuing “unchecked globalization.” While the current pandemic has reminded us all of the value of national self-sufficiency, and he will need to be careful not to stoke the rage of the radical individualists. We have just had a four-year lesson to the south on where “know-nothing” populism leads, and Canadians will not buy that approach.

O’Toole understands that the nativist backlash to globalization has its origins not only in the loss of skilled jobs but also in the inability of governments to respond to growing economic insecurity, complicated by elite contempt for its victims. (Think Liberals pushing for thousands of clean-tech jobs for people who would gladly displace thousands of Albertan energy workers – a group barely tolerated through gritted teeth and forced smiles – without addressing the bridges needed to ease such a transition.) 

Indeed, it can be argued that the most valuable lesson of the recent global rise of populism is that, while the decades of globalization have resulted in prosperity, they also had a fundamental blind spot: a singular focus on statistics rather than people. What matters, however, isn’t just the two million net new jobs resulting from a particular policy initiative, but how we got there. If a million workers were displaced to create a new industry for three million, then it’s a problem. American Author J.D. Vance captured well the social consequences of entire industries, classes and regions being squeezed out to make room for newer sources and regions of prosperity in his bestseller Hillbilly Elegy. Every political leader on either side of the border would do well to read the book.

The best response to these challenges is not to ignore or patronize real anxieties, but to respond with detailed policies that prove the Conservative Party fully understands the aspirations and needs of gig workers, Uber drivers, redundant petroleum engineers, and factory workers worried about their jobs.

The road to expanding the Conservatives’ potential base runs directly through energy and climate policy. O’Toole’s predecessor, Andrew Scheer, was unable to convince Canadians that he understood climate change or took it seriously; consequently, he paid a price at the polls. A September Leger poll for Canadians for Clean Prosperity found that 67 per cent of potential Conservative voters living in Ontario’s “905 region” were not prepared to vote for a party that doesn’t have a credible climate plan, and an equal number also said a carbon tax and rebate should be a priority. 

O’Toole has opposed a carbon tax, but has also been open to provinces adopting other approaches to carbon pricing or other market mechanisms; he also favours the recent federal announcement of energy retrofits for homes and businesses. He has said he supports policies that “reduce emissions without undermining productivity.” That’s a start, but the party will have to reconcile the instinctive fears of a carbon tax among Albertans and Saskatchewanians in the oil sector, with the expectations of Quebecers and Ontarians who don’t think twice about the petroleum industry and for whom a strong emission-reduction plan is electoral table stakes. 

While a full platform is under construction by the leader and caucus, O’Toole has made some good starts in other policy areas. 

With Canada-China relations in the deep-freeze courtesy of the Meng Wanzhou extradition case, which provoked the arbitrary detention of two Canadians by China, the Conservatives have been scoring significant points on the government’s lack of response to China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. 

Indeed, a China policy most resonating with regular Canadians is built on three Michaels: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor—whose abduction by Beijing sparked a broad Canadian distaste for their state captors—and Michael Chong—O’Toole’s unassailable foreign affairs point man. Chong has been Parliament’s most vocal critic of the growing influence of Chinese agents in Canada, the genocide against Uyghurs in China, and the crackdown on democratic rights in Hong Kong. O’Toole has been equally critical of the Trudeau government’s “endless indecision” on Huawei’s involvement in building Canada’s 5G network. 

Recent polling suggests Canadian public opinion supports what O’Toole is saying. In October, Pew Research reported that seventy-three per cent of Canadians now hold an unfavourable view of China. O’Toole links concerns about China’s growing influence to a tweaked Conservative trade policy: “I want working families to know our focus is on their well-being by seeking better trade deals and opening new markets as we re-balance trade away from China.” This is a departure from Canadian trade policy under Prime Minister Trudeau, and it is resonating with the public.

Perhaps the most profound tests for Erin O’Toole in the year ahead will be his ability to deal with political traps laid for him by the Liberals. They have already attempted to bait him on social policy such as new federal legislation on conversion therapy and medical assistance in dying. The Tory leader has managed both files smartly—supporting the objectives in principle, and working to fine-tune the bills rather than opposing them. The coming year will hold more traps from a government that is expert at laying them. This could include “poison pills” in the federal budget designed to force the Conservatives to vote against a package that contains other popular and needed COVID recovery measures. While such tactics are hardly new, dealing with them requires nimble political skill and shrewd political messaging. To his credit, O’Toole has brought in some of the best advisers his party has on offer to help on both counts.

O’Toole will also have a challenge in managing the more extreme social conservatives in his camp—not the pragmatists who happen to be socially conservative, but the ideologues like former leadership hopeful Derek Sloan, who wears it on his sleeve and for whom public provocation appears to be the primary objective. The latter has also become a poster child for anti-vaxxers—a group O’Toole would not want anywhere near his party, particularly at such a sensitive time.

O’Toole is a fighter. And given his background and varied career history, he has greater credibility potential than either of his predecessors. His childhood was split between his hometown of Montreal, Quebec, and Bowmanville, Ontario. First an Airforce Captain, and later a lawyer, GTA’s autoworkers were his neighbours. There is something in Erin O’Toole with which most Canadians will be able to relate. His “real people” background should serve him well in contrast to an opponent born into privilege. He also lacks his opponent’s proclivity for political gaffes and lapses of judgment, yet trails Trudeau in dynamism and political charisma.

A second truism in Canadian politics is that opposition leaders do not defeat governments—governments defeat themselves. This means O’Toole’s job is largely to be the next credible person ready to take up the mantle when the time comes (and possibly hasten the process a bit, if he can). Erin O’Toole is already taking important steps to be that natural successor when the government changes. He’s off to a good start, and he has to stay on a path that includes boldly challenging some canonical tenets of his party, and renewing them into a more modern Canadian conservatism. It won’t be easy, but it will ultimately be his path to electoral success.  

Geoff Norquay, former senior social policy advisor to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, is a Principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa.

Yaroslav Baran, a former parliamentary adviser and Conservative strategist, is Managing Principal of Earnscliffe.

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