Chairman's Desk

O’Toole makes Conservative party his own

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on January 24, 2021.

The ejection of the lamentable Derek Sloan from the Conservative caucus this week marks Erin O’Toole’s most important and consequential moment since his election as party leader. It is the precise moment O’Toole made the party his own.

Think of it as his very own Sister Souljah moment — a deliberately engineered decision that served as a proof point for the rejection of the extremist portions of his party.

For those not familiar with the reference, the phrase originated in 1992, when Bill Clinton seized on remarks by hip hop artist Sister Souljah as a pretense to distance himself from an increasingly radical Jesse Jackson Jr. and affirm his bona fides as a moderate, centrist Democrat.

Forgive the U.S. reference, but it seems especially apt, because O’Toole’s current problems are also American in origin. Ever since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Canadian leftists have worked hard to smear O’Toole and the Conservative Party with the same fascist brush.

This, of course, is patently ridiculous. There is a world of difference between Trump and O’Toole. But the Liberals have run this playbook before, with regrettably devastating success.

However, O’Toole is smarter than all that. He knows he can’t win with just the fringes, no matter how enthusiastic; the math simply doesn’t work.

So, seeking to head off a long-term image problem, O’Toole released an unusual statement on Jan. 17, declaring there is “no place for the far right” in the Conservative Party, which was to be “modern, pragmatic [and] mainstream.” The challenge for O’Toole was that pledge amounted to no more than words on a page.

Then, as fast as you could say “the luck of the Irish,” O’Toole had a now-familiar opportunity fall into his lap.

As first reported by the leftist media outfit Press Progress, MP Derek Sloan had accepted a $131 donation from avowed white supremacist Paul Fromm. Even though the donation was made under another name (Frederick P. Fromm), and was processed by the Conservative Party, O’Toole leapt. First, Sloan was banned from standing for the Conservatives in the next election, and by mid-week, he had been formally ejected from caucus.

Press Progress likely thought they were being clever by releasing this information now. After all, the Conservatives had been under fire post-insurrection, and the attacks were accumulating thanks to the party’s long-running inability to disavow Trump. Then, by twist of fate, here at last was a chance to rebuke the far right in a clear and decisive way, beyond what any written statement could accomplish.

Had the far more sophisticated Liberal PMO strategists been in charge of the timing, no doubt they would have preferred to release this in the middle of an election campaign, when O’Toole would have a much harder time distancing himself from a problematic candidate such as Sloan.

However, as with Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment, there is an element of risk at play for O’Toole. Just as African-Americans are a core constituency of the Democratic Party, social conservatives are central to the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party.

But again, this is where O’Toole was clever. Sloan was not ejected from the party for his socially conservative views. Were that the case, any one of his previous odious remarks would have been grounds for removal. And so, once again, just like in his leadership campaign where he did not attract one caucus endorsement, Sloan stands alone. Other prominent social conservatives, including most notably Leslyn Lewis, O’Toole’s great leadership rival, have not raised much fuss about his ejection. After all, with Sloan gone, Lewis is more important than ever.

On his way to remake the party in his own image, there may well have been more that O’Toole could have done to distance himself and the party from Trump sooner. Although no one could have predicted exactly how disastrously the Trump administration would end, those videos of O’Toole refusing to disavow Trump won’t be helpful in the pursuit of a “modern, pragmatic [and] mainstream” party.

Sloan’s expulsion is a gift in that regard.

What’s more, the whole sorry episode has demonstrated that, most important of all, O’Toole knows how to be a leader.