Chairman's Desk

Erin O’Toole gambles on change

In one sense, Erin O’Toole’s first policy convention as party leader came at a tough time. The party cannot gather in person because of the pandemic; the prospect of another virtual event was admittedly difficult to get excited about, and O’Toole himself would need to deliver one of the most important speeches of his career to a dead silent room.

In another sense, the timing was just right. The convention comes on the heels of an advertising campaign introducing O’Toole to Canadians (“Just Erin” goes the tag line). Speculation is ramping up for a spring election, with many Canadians taking a fresh look at political leaders.

Plus, the party’s old fractures were beginning to show, and something was going to need to be done — or said.

All of this meant that even in virtual form, the stakes were high for O’Toole’s speech on Friday night. Though the format freed him from the confines of conventional delivery, O’Toole and his team ultimately chose not to take creative advantage of the medium.

Instead, he delivered a classic, workmanlike address that sought to broaden the party’s tent, gesturing towards the centrist direction he hopes to lead the party, if not exactly bolting towards it.

Prior to the convention, social conservatives were organizing to win delegates, but ultimately their push for pro-life policies foundered on procedural grounds. (The party capped the number of motions at precisely 34 and chalked it up to the virtual format — another benefit of hosting the convention now.)

Instead, the party took up an environmental resolution, recognizing that climate change is real and committing the party to action.

What “action” exactly remains to be seen. He explicitly turned down an opportunity to answer that burning question in his speech Friday night, even as he acknowledged the party has fought and lost two elections “because voters did not think we were serious” about climate change.

All scuffles over the agenda of a policy convention and the parsing of the leader’s address mirror the conversations and debates that conservatives are having across the country. If the number of recent leaks and anonymous complaints is any indication, those conversations are not always favourable to O’Toole.

Despite having only been leader for six months, under the very unusual and restrictive circumstances of the pandemic, the running complaint is that O’Toole needs a clearer vision and a distinct identity in order for the party to pose a compelling alternative to Trudeau’s Liberals.

Sadly, “Just Erin” will not be enough to dispel this criticism, and O’Toole’s speech on Friday was his greatest opportunity to date to articulate his vision for the party. The answer is largely to be found in the newly unveiled “Canada Recovery Plan,” which packages together the party’s various post-COVID policy preferences.

But equally as important was O’Toole’s signalling that the party would no longer rely on Trudeau’s own scandals as the basis for his defeat.

Instead, O’Toole called for the party to find “the courage to grow” as it becomes “the party for all of Canada.” He made a proactive appeal to women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ+ Canadians. This tack towards the centre is not without precedent, even in O’Toole’s short term.

Back in September, shortly after becoming leader, O’Toole delivered a Labour Day message that clearly hinted at the direction he planned to take. He spoke then of “solidarity” and called for an economic policy that amounted to “more than just wealth creation.”

On Friday, he reiterated that desire to make inroads with new audiences, including organized labour, calling for a change in the party’s approach to win unions’ trust.

Even as he continues his outreach and appeals to those beyond the party’s base. O’Toole’s next real challenge as leader is to bring the party along with him.

That has not been easy during COVID, since it is much harder to corral a caucus when they cannot meet in person. Many of the party’s MPs are from Western Canada, and they have not thrilled to O’Toole’s move to the centre.

But they wanted a clear vision, and on Friday, O’Toole answered.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 21, 2021.

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