O’Toole makes his bed with social conservatives

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And it appears as though Erin O’Toole is about to make the same mistake as his predecessor, Andrew Scheer.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 22, 2021.

Leslyn Lewis is no Peter MacKay.

And the fact that MacKay was missing in action while Lewis was co-chair of the virtual national Conservative convention spells trouble.

It basically means that Erin O’Toole is making his bed with the social conservatives who have cost Tories a couple of elections.

MacKay characterized the social conservative views of his party as a “stinking albatross.” That statement probably cost him the leadership, but its truthfulness was borne out by the election results.

And it appears as though O’Toole is about to make the same mistake as his predecessor, Andrew Scheer.

By giving the convention spotlight to Lewis, the leader plans to line up behind a wing in his party that is anti-choice, anti-gay, and supportive of conversion therapy.

Her “surprising” sweep of Saskatchewan during the leadership against O’Toole was not surprising at all. The Saskatchewan wing of the party is dominated by social conservatism.

O’Toole has also made the mistake of letting MacKay know that his presence is not wanted in the next election.

That, in and of itself, is a gift to the Liberals.

MacKay and his father, Elmer, have deep Atlantic roots that started with the Progressive Conservatives.

MacKay distinguished himself as a fiscal conservative and social liberal, following the road map set out by successful past leaders including two-time Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

MacKay could have done some serious damage to Liberal hegemony in Atlantic Canada. He would also have been able to enlist support from long-time Mulroney supporters who are somewhat reluctant to jump in bed with the albatrosses that O’Toole is favouring.

Lewis, the first woman of colour to run for the federal party’s leadership, is bright and well-educated but has very little political experience.

She has been acclaimed to run in the Haldimand-Norfolk, Ont., riding that is being vacated by long-time Conservative heavyweight Diane Finley.

The riding has been characterized in the media as a Conservative stronghold, but history does not actually back up that claim.

Former Liberal MP Bob Speller actually held the riding from 1988 to 2004 and he had huge margins over his Progressive Conservative opponents until the arrival of Finley.

Lewis is being introduced into the riding by Finley but coming as a parachute from Toronto will not make things easy for her.

Her coattails are largely held by the group that the Conservatives want to distance themselves from.

But MacKay actually has coattails that can bring the progressive and regionally diverse regions back into the fold.

For the Conservatives to form government, they must make a breakthrough in Atlantic Canada, and the presence of MacKay supporters would have assisted in that regard.

The convention has made a point of kicking Derek Sloan off the team, ostensibly because of his poisonous comments on multiple issues.

But then they go and elevate his counterpart, Lewis, who has shared the similar viewpoint about social issues that he espouses.

Here’s how she explained her opposition to a ban on conversion therapy, citing the concern of parents and pastors “that their parental autonomy is being limited because the government is basically somewhat stepped in as a surrogate to tell them what they can and cannot do.”

In her platform for leadership, Lewis promised to “end abortion funding overseas … criminalize coerced abortions.”

During the leadership, she was lauded by Christianity Today as “the only one [candidate] speaking about her faith.”

So, O’Toole definitely did not need to kick out two social conservatives from the party, especially since their supporters actually delivered him the leadership.

But he certainly should not have elevated a social conservative to star status if he actually wants to win the next election.

Most Canadians believe firmly in the separation of church and state, and the vast majority do not believe that parents or pastors can convince young people to change their sexual orientation.

O’Toole’s first words after the leadership convention involved assuring Canadians that he would be marching in Gay Pride parades, unlike his predecessor. That was an important step in moving the party back to the moderate middle.

That is where they need to be if they intend to convince voters that they can be trusted not to tamper with basic reproductive rights and sexual orientation laws.

But all the work was thrown away on the weekend, as it became increasingly clear that the social conservatives are in charge of the federal Conservative team.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.