O’Toole’s dilemma

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If Erin O’Toole really wants to appeal to non-traditional Conservatives, he will have to cut ties with social conservatives and the far right.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 31, 2020.

OTTAWA—It would be a mistake to underestimate the electability of Erin O’Toole.

He has many things going for him, the first of which is that he is a relative unknown. These days, the shelf-life of a politician is generally one election. It used to be that if you were doing a decent job, voters might keep you around for a second term.

The longevity of a local politician is still in the double digits. Just ask Ottawa mayor Jim Watson how many ministers on the federal and provincial level that he has outlived. But party politics is one place where the more experience you get, the more people want to get rid of you.

Just look at how many people rabidly despised Hillary Clinton, even though she had more experience than any other candidate at the national and international level. She wore her husband’s warts, and then some.

Clinton was also suffering from the same swathe of sexism that came to the fore when Chrystia Freeland was recently named finance minister. Multiple journalists attacked Freeland’s lack of financial credentials. These same journalists never questioned the bona fides of lawyers cum finance ministers, like Jim Flaherty and Ralph Goodale. Freeland, like ministerial colleague Catherine McKenna, was dished up a particularly vitriolic dose of misogyny.

O’Toole has a chance to shape his brand, and in his early morning victory speech last week, he hit all the right buttons. He spoke at length about how to broaden the party base and invite those who have never voted Conservative to join him. He outlined his support of the LGBTQ community and his opposition to reopening the abortion question.

But O’Toole will also have to stickhandle the demands within his own party, as the radical right gained strength and visibility during the Conservative leadership race.

Tory pundits were lauding the fact that a Black woman surpassed Peter MacKay’s support in all western provinces. They claimed that the support for Leslyn Lewis was testament to Tories’ openness to diversity.

Hogwash. Lewis was a stalking horse for the anti-choice movement, which continues to grow deep and strong roots in the Conservative party.

The fact that a candidate for leadership, who could not speak French, would get 20 per cent of the party’s vote on a first ballot is truly frightening. When you couple her party support with that of Derek Sloan, the pair of proudly evangelical politicians garnered 40 per cent of the Conservative Party’s 174,404 voters. That is scary.

Lewis is now being touted as a new leading light in her party. That blows up O’Toole’s shout-out to inclusivity on election night. Her leadership transcendence was driven by those who would like to turn back the clock on issues like abortion.

Sloan had a 12-point plan on the issue. His first commitment was to promise to work with party grassroots to revoke Conservative Party policy No. 70. That policy, slimly endorsed at their 2018 Halifax policy convention, states that “a Conservative government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.”

Lewis was ranked No. 1 on the voter’s list recommended by the anti-choice group RightNow. Sloan was ranked second. O’Toole was ranked third, and MacKay came dead last.

RightNow describes itself as the political arm of the pro-life movement and promotes a mandate to work full-time to secure nominations and elections for candidates who oppose abortion. No surprise that Lewis was their chosen candidate.

Like Sloan, she does not support abortion and is opposed to a government ban on conversion therapy, a controversial practice to modify the sexual orientation of gays and lesbians.

MacKay, who ran behind Lewis in all western provinces on the first ballot, was directly attacked by her for claiming that social conservatism was like a “stinking albatross” around the neck of party in the last election.

At some point during the race, one-third of Tory voters cast a ballot for Lewis.

Lewis, who has four degrees including a master’s in environmental science, opposes the carbon tax. She also received support during the race from the gun lobby. She and Sloan both oppose Canada’s current immigration policy and Lewis promised to roll back legalization of marijuana.

If O’Toole elevates her to a senior party position, he will be playing right into the hands of RightNow, whose stated intention is to re-criminalize abortion.

During his victory speech, O’Toole promised to reach out to a broad coalition of Canadians. To do so, he needs to visibly cut ties with his own party’s radical right.

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