Erin O’Toole faces the same challenge that would confront any leader of the Conservative Party of Canada: how does he grow the party by appealing to progressives and keep the base?
The past few days have made clear the severity of this challenge. Conservative candidate (and longtime MP) Cheryl Gallant brought campaigning to a new low: she circulated a conspiracy theory about how the Liberals would impose a “climate lockdown.” She also posted a video featuring Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau with a noose around his neck.
This violent rhetoric is even worse than the “lock him up” chants that can be heard at campaign demonstrations. O’Toole must denounce this content in no uncertain terms, both for the sake of civility in Canadian politics and for his party’s future.
He is at a pivotal moment in the election campaign: he’s up in the polls, his platform is gaining traction and the Liberals are trailing. Trudeau called this election ostensibly to turn his minority government into a majority and, as of yet, has failed to put forward a compelling ballot question apart from “Canadians want to be heard.”
It looks increasingly likely that Trudeau and the Liberals underestimated O’Toole. Perhaps we all did. After becoming leader in August of 2020, he had trouble resonating with voters. But, by releasing a platform based on “compassionate conservatism” and building a brand as “the man with the plan,” he has found a way to make the party relevant in this campaign.
This is both a blessing and a curse for O’Toole, and how he governs himself in the next several days will be a deciding factor in whether he becomes the next prime minister.
Now that O’Toole is a real contender for the top office, he’s getting hammered with the hard questions about how he will manage the divergent and often controversial factions within the Conservative tent, including pro-lifers and anti-vaxxers.
For former Conservative leader Stephen Harper, the first leader of the merged federal party, the winning formula was control. His PMO ran a centralized system of communications that had the effect of preventing members of Parliament from speaking off the cuff and saying the wrong things. He threw crumbs to the base on things like Senate reform in order to maintain loyalty, and he reminded supporters that infighting would only reward the Liberals. His style of leadership was heavily criticized, but it worked in its own way: he formed three consecutive governments.
O’Toole is taking a different approach. His image is based not on authority but on relatability. He’s the anti-Trudeau in the sense that he’s not an extroverted celebrity but, instead, comes across as a logical, sensible sort who cares about health care, the economy and jobs. He is building his image as a family man who works hard, jogs and enjoys an after-work drink with his wife.
Though this could help people to identify with O’Toole, and may even make voters more likely to consider his platform, he’s too soft on the Cheryl Gallants of the party. She has crossed a line. It is O’Toole’s job as leader to hold that line.
While Harper’s control-style leadership was a turn-off in many ways, it was also the reason that people trusted him: there was no doubt that he was in charge, that he didn’t hesitate to silence opinions that were indefensible or off-brand, and that no faction of the party would ever override him. It was his party, for better or for worse.
When O’Toole dodges questions on whether he would appoint an anti-vaxxer or an anti-abortionist as his minister of health, he’s sowing distrust. These questions are not merely political traps or attempts to jam him; he must answer them honestly to rise above the Liberals’ attempt to paint him not as a man with a plan, but as a man with a hidden agenda.
A video of the prime minister with a noose around his neck contributes to the normalization of violence and the deterioration of civility in politics. Political leaders share responsibility for classifying this type of toxicity as out of bounds and beneath anyone who aspires to the privilege of public office. This campaign has seen unprecedented levels of anger, hostility and hate, much of it directed at Trudeau personally, as well as at COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccines. Most significantly, these demonstrations pose serious threats to the safety and security of those present.
But they have political implications as well. Everyone expects candidates and parties to clash over ideas, but if O’Toole is seen to have Gallant’s back, this is a powerful message about what the new Conservative Party stands for – one that is completely at odds with the compassionate conservatism he’s been running on. If there are no consequences for Gallant’s kind of menace, what is the leader telling his party, let alone those angry voters?
Lori Turnbull is director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.