Fiscal conservatism may be a Tory badge of honour, but Erin O’Toole’s challenge is to reach Canadians in the moderate middle.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 7, 2020.
OTTAWA—You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Erin O’Toole should have remembered that last week.
O’Toole has won the Conservative leadership. It is now his job to win the country. The decision to attack the Canada Emergency Response Benefit was downright dumb. It cast O’Toole in the image of a born-again tight Tory.
“Tory times are tough times” is a refrain that has haunted the party since forever. Fiscal conservatism may be a Tory badge of honour, but the O’Toole challenge is to reach beyond those members.
Most Canadians find themselves in the moderate middle. The current government has seen its popularity grow because of a robust financial response to an unprecedented pandemic. But in his first post-convention interview, O’Toole attacked the CERB, saying it undermined the employer wage subsidy program set up at the same time.
The amount of money paid out to unemployed Canadians was only $500 a week, but O’Toole felt it undermined employers who might have otherwise wanted to keep their employees on.
That interview reinforced the impression that the Conservative leader will be there for the money guys but not for ordinary citizens. How could he possibly attack a $500 a week payment that literally kept food on the table in millions of Canadian households during an unprecedented world pandemic?
The program was not perfect. But it was delivered in a timely fashion to a desperate nation.
The government is now considering a Guaranteed Annual Income to replace the panoply of support programs that currently litter the national and provincial landscapes. The conversation on a guaranteed income has been circulating in social policy circles for decades, but it took a real-life crisis to thrust the government into a temporary guaranteed income.
And It worked. With millions of Canadians applying for the benefit, computers did not crash, and benefits were distributed broadly and quickly. Why O’Toole would choose to attack that program in his first media interview demonstrates a clear lack of political antennae.
Much was written about his surprising victory against veteran Peter MacKay and many ascribed his win to political acumen. He certainly had the acumen to attract social Conservatives in his party, but that does not necessarily translate into a capacity to resonate with the general public.
His second move last week was the appointment of social conservative Candice Bergen as deputy leader. The photogenic Manitoba member was specifically tasked with tackling the issue of western alienation.
Bergen also happens to hail from the part of the party that he has to distance himself from if he has any intention of becoming prime minister. According to Campaign Life Coalition “Candice has a perfect voting record in the House of Commons on life & family issues.” That is code for the fact that every time she has had a chance to vote on abortion and gay rights issues, she has turned them down.
Notwithstanding her voting record, Bergen has spoken positively about LGBTQ rights, suggesting that she celebrates homosexuality, pansexuality and transgenderism. So, her viewpoint has been muddied by realpolitik. But the next Tory convention will undoubtedly face a push to approve the re-criminalization of abortion. And where will Bergen be on that issue?
Bergen’s appointment was also introduced as a way to reach out on the issue of Western alienation. With a former Tory Member of Parliament now running the Wexit Canada party, the Conservatives must guard their right flank. But the only way they can become government is by broadening their reach across the country.
O’Toole may have won the majority of Quebec votes in the leadership but his main opponent, Peter MacKay, had the support of most of the Members of Parliament.
That was because the social conservatism wave that rode O’Toole to victory is a non-starter in la belle province. O’Toole was smart enough to downplay his right-wing roots during the French debate. That was obviously enough to assuage his Quebec supporters. But an opening week focused on Western alienation and opposition to emergency COVID assistance is hardly a compelling appeal to Quebecers.
O’Toole’s mistakes were hardly fatal, but they do impart a flavour of just what kind of advice he must be getting. A Conservative spokesperson said he had incorporated some players from the MacKay team amongst his senior advisors. But he may not have been open to their advice. The “stinking albatross” comment may have cost MacKay his party’s leadership.
But the albatross in the O’Toole room is not going away any time soon.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.