(Picture of Erin O'Toole by manningcentre is licensed under CC BY 2.0)
By: Leif Sutton-Williams
When the investigative news organization Press Progress broke the story that Derek Sloan accepted a donation from a prominent Canadian white supremacist, Erin O’Toole declared that
"There is no place for the far right in our party."
He promptly removed Sloan from the Conservative party caucus. And yet just a few months earlier, when many had called for Sloan’s removal from the party during the Conservative leadership race, O’Toole argued that Sloan should remain. He defended the racist statements Sloan had directed at Dr Theresa Tam, the public health officer of Canada, that she was in the pocket of the Chinese state. O’Toole responded by saying:
"I always will give a colleague, or anyone in Parliament, in public life, the benefit of the doubt…And that was the case early on with Derek, when he said he did not mean to malign the intentions of Dr. Tam."
So why the sudden change of heart? Did Erin O’Toole suddenly become aware of the dangers of the far-right within his party?
In the 2017 Conservative leadership race he ran as a moderate “Red Tory”, who was fiscally conservative and socially liberal, in favour of gay marriage and pro-choice on abortion. The result was he came third, losing the race because Andrew Sheer managed to corral the support of social conservative activists, a group who still has disproportionate influence within the Conservative party yet is a fringe minority in mainstream society. O’Toole decided that to become leader of the party he would have to make a sharp turn to the right, indulging extremists and campaigning like he was now one of them.
Enter the 2019 Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole, who in his own words was now a ‘true blue conservative’. He insinuated that his main rival, Peter Mackay was ‘Liberal lite’. He was supported by Ontario Proud, hiring Jeff Ballingall as his Communications Director, previously the chief marketing director for the Post-Millennial, a far-right news magazine. He even adopted the slogan ‘Take Canada Back’ a dog whistle to the far-right that was so unsubtle, it was more like a foghorn.
However, as soon as he became leader, the old 'Red Tory' Erin suddenly emerged once more. No longer a true blue conservative, he was now a moderate again and a man firmly grounded in the centre of Canadian politics. In fact, he even seemed to have had a late conversion to the social democratic left, arguing he was pro-union and an ally of labour, declaring that the Conservatives were now the natural home of working class Canadian voters. In an ad from 2020, he said, “part of the problem is big business, corporate and financial power brokers who care more about their shareholders, than their employees”.
Even after returning to the centre, Erin seemingly forgot he was supposedly a moderate and thinking he was among like minded true conservatives at Toronto university's Campus Conservative club said that the residential school system had been created with good intentions and to ‘provide education’ to indigenous communities. As soon as Press Progress broke the story, O’Toole swiftly backtracked.
Erin O’Toole has just enough political insight to know that in order for the Conservatives to win a majority or even just become the largest party in terms of seats, they would have to break out of the west and start winning moderate voters in the GTA and Quebec. In another age, maybe he would have been able to get away with such obvious ideological contortions, but in the age of the internet everything is on record. Every contradictory statement floating out there is just waiting to be used in Liberal attack ads at the next election. He may have thought it was possible to fool Canadians, but it seems they have caught onto his deceptions, with some of the worst polling numbers of any leader of the opposition in modern Canadian political history. Even Andrew Sheer had an initial polling bump when he was elected leader of the Tories, but not O’Toole. The latest poll from Abacus has O’Toole with a -12 approval rating, by far the worst of all three of the main federal party leaders.
The man who ironically mocked Peter Mackay as a two faced flip flopper is now in the unenviable position of having his chickens come home to roost. The Conservatives are stuck in the late 20s in the polls, while the Liberal’s lead holds steady and the NDP continues to rise in popularity. Some of the polling even suggests that former conservative voters are crossing the floor to the NDP, seeing them as the real opposition now to the Liberal Party.
Almost all political leaders play to their base in order to win their party’s leadership—that’s the nature of leadership elections. The smart ones then pivot to the centre, to broaden their party’s support in order to win a majority. This is standard political practice. But few of them change their positions so drastically and in such a short space of time. The essential problem is that O’Toole has made the age-old political mistake of confusing short term tactics with long term strategy.
The result is that Erin O’Toole’s political brand is fundamentally damaged, a man who seems to adopt whatever political principles are expedient at any given time, depending on who he is talking to and the state of the political climate. There is no doubt that the Liberal party will exploit his blatant flip flopping to their own political advantage and rip apart any attempt by O’Toole to look like a plausible candidate for Prime Minister at the next election. While the Liberals look increasingly likely to win a majority, and the NDP are almost certainly poised to win more seats, the official opposition seems to be on life support, barely staying above water. They are likely to be fighting a defensive campaign at the next election, desperate just to hold onto the seats they have rather than being able to go on the attack against Trudeau and try to form government.
By making a pact with the devil to win the leadership of his party, O’Toole has possibly ruined any potential chance he had to portray himself as a mainstream politician who could become Prime Minister. He has only himself to blame.