Erin O’Toole’s political, policy and pandemic challenges

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of Policy Magazine.

After a marathon vote-counting drama that saw conventional wisdom overturned, Erin O’Toole was elected leader of the Conservative Party of Canada on the third ballot by a clear margin of 57 to 43 percent over Peter MacKay. The new leader faces unique challenges unforeseen just months ago. With the COVID-19 pandemic still taking Canadian lives and upending our economy, politics and governance, O’Toole becomes Opposition Leader at a moment unprecedented outside of wartime.

To the victor belong the spoils. But also—as Erin O’Toole is about to learn—the toil.

O’Toole has won the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in what was surely the strangest partisan competition in our history. New and relatively unknown candidates, the impact of COVID-19 on campaigning, and the persistent hanging-on of the outgoing leader all contributed to a contest about as interesting as the live stream footage of the party’s empty ballot vault in Ottawa.

With a determined effort and a persistent focus on down-ballot support from social conservatives, O’Toole has earned his win. But with that triumph come serious challenges—challenges that go well beyond the usual uphill battle facing a new leader.

By now, it is a trope to point out just how much the world has changed in 2020. But still, consider how things looked when O’Toole threw his hat in the ring to be leader in January. Canadians were focused on Iran’s downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane carrying 57 Canadians. We were contemplating which high-end area code in Canada Prince Harry and Meghan Markle might land in. Simply put, we had no idea what was coming.

But the world today looks very different, and it will take some time for our federal political parties to adjust. Now that Erin O’Toole is leading the Conservatives, what challenges does he face in the party, in the House, and across the country—and how should he address them?

First of all, the party.

While this race has proven far less divisive and the party less conflicted than in 2017, there is no denying the challenge that O’Toole faces. The ever-present divisions between social conservatives and the rest of the party have quieted down, but by no means have they disappeared. O’Toole needs a big- tent approach that brings Conservative supporters onboard while acknowledging the essential need to modernize and align with Canadians’ contemporary priorities.

Managing this uneasy alliance is always difficult, and some leaders have fared better than others. The reality is that while O’Toole owes his victory to social conservatives, he is not one of them. The truth is O’Toole has always been a progressive and so he will have to work to meaningfully address their concerns while not forgetting the three quarters of members who opted for a moderate, modern party.

He seemed to understand that in his victory speech, when he established a land speed record for distancing himself from social conservative allies and staked out a big blue tent.

Especially if there is an impending federal election, it will be quite a balancing act for O’Toole to conclusively put to bed social issues like equal marriage and reproductive rights, as Andrew Scheer was neither able nor seriously willing to do. It has become increasingly awkward to watch Conservatives across Canada contort themselves around these issues.

Andrew Scheer’s refusal to properly address climate change was undoubtedly a factor in his political demise. As Canadians overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change, it’s no longer feasible for the Conservative Party to ignore their clarion call for some form of climate action. O’Toole ran with a plan to reduce emissions in Canada and around the world, but he would be wise to promptly begin working with other Conservatives to come up with a serious alternative to the Liberals’ carbon tax.

In this area, O’Toole has an advantage over his competitors. He provided a refreshing dose of realism on the campaign trail by acknowledging that the Tories won’t win another election without a real climate policy that speaks to Canadians. And he’s right. We simply cannot afford to lose another election by refusing to address the urgency of a planetary, existential threat.

But 2020 has also brought unprecedented, rather than familiar, challenges to the party. As COVID-19 has brought us further apart through social distancing measures, the typical vehicles for assembling supporters and reaching donors are no longer an option. Tactics will need to adapt, and quickly at that. There will be no mass conventions to rally party members, no glad-handing with donors or influential meetings of minds in stuffy rooms. But O’Toole has already figured that out. Rather than being stymied by the restrictions of the virus over his campaign, he figured out how to use it to his advantage. A judo move, if you will. He quickly mastered the art of Zoom. His campaign team used technology skillfully and O’Toole found his footing in a whole new way of campaigning.

So, he has an advantage over Justin Trudeau in that he’s already figured out how to campaign outside of traditional channels—and win. In his leadership race, he Zoom-called folks in every low-turnout riding, and he’s sure to do the same in a federal election.

We know there will be challenges for O’Toole across the board, and the House is no exception. No one doubts O’Toole’s bona fides when it comes to governing and parliamentary procedure—he’s been an MP for eight years and has served as a cabinet minister. Unlike MacKay or Leslyn Lewis, he also has the authority and platform provided by a seat in the House of Commons, starting on day one.

Conservatives are also eager to have their leader on the Hill—at least virtually—so that he can champion the party’s efforts to keep the government in check. For months, the job has fallen to Pierre Poilievre as shadow minister of finance. But with a new leader elected in a time of national—and global—crisis, it is high time for the leader of the Opposition to fulfil the very essence of the role by providing oversight and acting as a check to the government’s impulses. I look forward to Erin O’Toole’s maiden question period, as do, I’m sure, many Canadians who feel that an effective foil to Justin Trudeau has been sorely lacking in the green chamber.

Erin O’Toole will also have to reckon with a Parliament that has changed in remarkable ways since he first took office in 2012. The Bloc Québécois are back to stay it seems, and the new Tory leader will need to get better acquainted with Yves-François Blanchet and his colleagues in relatively short order, if he is going to have any say in making the weather.

But aside from issues in the party and the swift action needed in the House, O’Toole faces challenges across the country, not least of which being exactly how he will grapple with the role of Opposition leader during a global pandemic and the vicissitudes that entails.

First, he will need to reckon with a new, post-pandemic politics. Social attitudes in Canada and around the world have changed, largely in response to the grave inequalities and injustices revealed by COVID-19. The issues, too, have changed along with the tone of conversation. So have Canadians’ expectations of their leaders and parties. Here, again, O’Toole will need to address these challenges, in part by reconciling his longstanding identity as a moderate voice from Ontario, with his recent courtship of the party’s right-wing.

The final and, it seems to me, most significant challenge O’Toole faces is really how to “own” his role as leader of the Opposition while preparing to contest a federal election.

I believe that Canadians are hoping for more than just a candidate for prime minister. They want someone who will hold Justin Trudeau to account for his actions. Someone to remind them what the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition is meant to do: contest fiscal overreach, press the government on their response to this pandemic and ensure that the mad rush of COVID legislation does not go without serious oversight.

If O’Toole can effectively do that while whirring up the party apparatus for a fight, he stands a real shot at convincing Canadians of the imperative for a Conservative government. And if the NDP and Bloc are eager to play ball, it could be as early as next fall.

It will be gruelling work, but his task couldn’t be more essential—for Conservatives and more importantly, for all Canadians.