After running an exceptionally well-calibrated (and ultimately successful) leadership campaign, it’s been a less-than-inspiring start as Conservative leader for Erin O’Toole.
As the Liberals seem to have righted the ship as far as their polling numbers are concerned, O’Toole has been dealing with frustration and dissent within his own ranks, not to mention his own occasional missteps.
With a rather high likelihood of a federal election this year, there’s some urgency for the party and its leader to find a sense of identity and convince Canadians that it’s an identity that reflects their values and priorities.
While it can be challenging for an opposition leader to grab the spotlight, yesterday’s speech to the Conservative policy convention was an ideal opportunity for O’Toole to start to turn things around.
As O’Toole noted, it’s not enough for Conservatives to simply hope that Trudeau will fall on his face or to assume that after almost seven years Canadians will have simply tired of the Liberals. While the government has indeed faced some controversy and challenges, Conservatives cannot bank on those for electoral success. The problematic vaccine rollout had the potential to represent a government-ending fiasco, but that situation has improved considerably.
Furthermore, though, the Liberal government could benefit substantially if the backdrop of the election is a successful vaccine rollout, a receding pandemic, and the economic recovery that comes along with that. It’s not to say that the Liberals deserve all the credit for that or that they deserve to benefit politically from post-pandemic euphoria, but politics isn’t always fair.
O’Toole seems to recognize all of this but his speech still came of just short of really laying out a clear vision for where he wants to take the country and just what O’Toole conservatism represents.
It was unquestionably a significant moment when O’Toole declared that the Conservative party needed the “courage to grow, to be bold, and to change.” It would have been much more significant, though, if O’Toole had laid out just what sort of changes he has in mind.
There’s no doubt that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper left his mark on the party and defined it in many ways. Both Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer have had to live in that shadow, although it’s been partly by choice on their respective parts. O’Toole must now define this new Conservative identity while avoiding any sort of repudiation of what the party has previously represented.
Part of the challenge is that O’Toole’s own political identity has seemed nebulous at times. His first leadership run certainly differed from his second leadership run, and O’Toole the leadership candidate certainly differed from O’Toole the leader.
O’Toole’s speech yesterday focused on what he calls “Canada’s Recovery Plan,” which consists of five priority areas: secure jobs, secure accountability, secure mental health, secure the country, and secure the economy. While we got some hints about what some of that might look like, there are still a lot of blanks yet to be filled in.
Canadians deserve a meaningful debate about how best to emerge from this pandemic and its associated economic malaise. When it comes to stimulating economic growth, tackling deficits and debt and confronting the geopolitical fallout, there’s plenty of room for Conservatives to offer a stark contrast to Liberal priorities while still appealing to significant numbers of Canadians.
O’Toole seems to be knocking on the right door. Let’s see if he can step all the way through.