Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan

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All signs are pointing to a Liberal government, with the only question being whether it will be minority or majority.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 16, 2021.

OTTAWA—Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.

Political failure is even more solitary as Erin O’Toole will likely discover on Monday night.

Insiders will blame his loss on Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who allegedly broke a promise not to make any announcements for the duration of the campaign.

Others will finger the media for the defeat. That is quite bizarre, considering most major media outlets have shifted so far to the right that they make O’Toole look centrist.

A third group will blame the People’s Party of Canada, whose rise in popularity came from disaffected right-wing Tories who opposed O’Toole’s gamble to move to the centre.

But in the end, the best autopsy of a failed campaign is to look inward and figure out why a great start to a Conservative majority government sputtered at the mid-way point and limped across the finish line.

I realize that I am taking some risk in writing this autopsy four days before the vote. But all signs are pointing to a Liberal government, with the only question being whether it will be minority or majority.

And the slide in Conservative support proves that not only do campaigns matter but debates matter even more.

It has been a historical truism to say that debates only serve to solidify the pre-conceived positions of voters who have already chosen their preferred leader.

This election turned that truism on its head. The first French debate, on TVA, opened up the question of gun control, with Justin Trudeau pointedly asking O’Toole about his platform promise to end the ban on assault weapons.

Perhaps the biggest mistake of the campaign was the Conservative organizers’ decision to follow up the debate with a presser the following day in Quebec on the party’s strategy to fight crime.

His people should have realized that dumping an assault ban and then promoting crime issues in Quebec would not be a smart idea.

While the debate opened the wound, the press conference made the situation worse. O’Toole spent the following week backpedalling and prevaricating. The slide got so bad that he ended up saying that he would no longer respect the promise in his vaunted action plan.

That stopped the stall, but O’Toole never seemed to regain the momentum experienced by the Conservatives at the beginning of the campaign.

The O’Toole endorsement from Quebec Premier François Legault looked as though it might be able to move Tory numbers again, but another debate killed that momentum.

The questioning by moderator Shachi Kurl was indelicate to say the least. But she handed the separatists a gift when she tagged all Quebecers with the accusation of racism.

Kurl may have thought she was exposing a bad law, but she ended up giving a huge boost to the flagging campaign of Bloc Québécois leader François Blanchet.

And in so doing, delivered a death blow to O’Toole’s chances of forming government.

In sheer numbers alone, it is just about impossible to get to 24 Sussex, without passing through and securing support in Quebec.

O’Toole’s strategy was to focus on Quebec nationalists, who have historically voted blue, moving between the Conservatives, and the old Union Nationale, and the Bloc.

O’Toole’s promise of unconditional cash transfers for health was one of the reasons Quebec’s premier endorsed him.

But the uproar in the province after the English debate killed that endorsement and four days before the election, the Conservative Party is polling at 18 per cent. As Quebecers like winners, with the Liberals polling at 33 per cent in Quebec and the Bloc at 28, Tory chances in the province wane daily.

In the end, the O’Toole loss came because he was on the wrong side of most election issues.

On childcare, his promise to tear up provincial agreements to offer 10-dollar a day care in return for tax crediting individual families was complicated and unpopular.

The leader also was also on the wrong side of the climate change debate, promising to push Canadians back to the targets set by former prime minister Stephen Harper that are 15 per cent lower than Liberal targets.

His flip-flop on gun control and confusion around abortion and health care universality created further questions about the agenda of a Conservative majority government.

O’Toole’s ongoing pitch that the election should not have happened and his personal attacks on Trudeau did not help. When people got to the urns, they voted on issues.

In the end, Canadians decided O’Toole was simply not worth the risk.

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