Erin O’Toole’s Big Election Bet: Make Conservatives Progressive Again

Erin O’Toole has a decent shot of being Canada’s new prime minister next week. But a move towards the centre could cost him voters to the right.
Mack Lamoureux
Toronto, CA
September 17, 2021, 9:00am
At this time next week, there is a very real chance that Canadians wake up to a country led not by Justin Trudeau but Conservative  Leader Erin O’Toole.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to the media following the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

At this time next week, there is a very real chance that Canadians wake up to a country led not by Justin Trudeau but Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

While it’s not the most likely outcome—there’s a roughly 1-4 chance according to polls, which famously, are not always right—it’s not out of the realm of possibility. This wasn’t supposed to be the case, as this snap election was supposed to end with Trudeau wiping the floor with his opponents on a way to a majority government—that’s why he called it, after all. Now, it’s hard to call that decision anything but a big whoopsie as the Conservatives have not only managed to make the election competitive but could win. 

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Experts say a strong reason for this was O’Toole’s decision to move the party’s branding to the centre. 

“It was quite a sharp shift in strategy he had,” pollster Frank Graves told VICE World News. “He repositioned the party in a fairly dramatic move, to a more centre-right positioning.”

“It’s a bit of a gamble, but it certainly, in the short-term, seemed to work quite well.” 

In many ways, O’Toole would be a staunch departure from Trudeau. He’s rather unassuming; O’Toole may be the younger of the two but lacks Trudeau’s youthful look, charisma, and penchant for viral moments. But the Liberals have been in power for over half a decade now and fatigue is starting to set in on Trudeau, and sometimes boring wins campaigns (Hi Joe Biden! Hello Stephen Harper!).

O’Toole is running on a platform that somewhat targets the working vote, not the weird men in fancy suits smoking cigars in a penthouse of a Calgary skyscraper. In late August, O’Toole unveiled a platform that included policies such as requiring large companies to have worker representation on their board, and acknowledging climate change is real and needs addressing (although of course, not addressing it as quickly or thoroughly as the other parties). You can read a breakdown of the platform here.

Shakir Chambers, the principal strategist at Earnscliffe Strategy Group who has worked with several provincial and federal Conservative campaigns, told VICE World News he thinks “O’Toole’s views and positions jive very well with the Canadian public,” and, specifically, with the voters he’s courting in the non-Conservative strongholds of Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. 

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“They don’t want to reopen the abortion debate. They don’t want to talk about relaxing gun measures. They don’t want to talk about weak climate change plans,” said Chambers. “Erin O’Toole’s team recognizes that and they’re driving the party into a more moderate position.”

Some have praised O’Toole for moving the party forward, while others don’t necessarily buy what he’s selling.  Regardless, after the disastrous reign of socially conservative leader Andrew Scheer, O’Toole is actively attempting to sell a softer, more welcoming Conservative Party—something that’s caused it to face real competition from the right for the first time in a while. 

Aiding O’Toole’s rise in the polls is Trudeau’s unpopular decision to even call the election (at the same time that Kabul fell to the Taliban) as well as the pessimism brought about by the fourth wave of COVID-19.

Recently, however, O’Toole’s momentum has slowed and Trudeau has moved back into the lead in many polls. Graves thinks this could be because people began to view O’Toole as a real possibility. 

Duane Bratt, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, told VICE World News he believes many within the Conservative Party aren’t thrilled with O’Toole’s move leftward but are willing to give him a shot. 

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“A lot of them are holding their nose right now just to see what happens,” said Bratt. “But if he doesn’t win or come close, he may have some issues within his own party. I’ve called him a progressive conservative. He’s running like (former prime minister) Brian Mulroney.”

If O’Toole loses a good number of seats and somehow does worse than Scheer, Bratt said he could see the party quickly turning tail on this experimental appeal to the centre and bringing in a “red-blooded conservative” like Pierre Poilievre next time.

None of this is to say that O’Toole isn’t courting the right-wing or socially conservative voters; he’s just doing it in more subtle ways than Scheer. For example, in a recent video posted in French to his Twitter page, O’Toole vows to close Roxham Road, an illegal border crossing that has frequently used by the far-right and Conservative Party politicians to demonize asylum seekers and show toughness on illegal immigration. According to experts consulted by the Toronto Star, the video promoted “harmful anti-refugee myths” and spread misinformation. Now though, O’Toole has competition from that side of the political spectrum.

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It’s impossible to talk about this election, and especially O’Toole’s chances, without speaking about one of his former co-workers, Maxime Bernier, and the People’s Party of Canada (PPC). Bernier, who came within a hair of winning the leadership race over Scheer, left the Conservatives in disgust in 2018 to start the PPC—a thrown-together party of far-right agitators, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, disaffected voters, business people, and a man who believes other men should never ejaculate. (The party is known for not exactly vetting its candidates or campaign workers well.) The PPC got demolished in the last election, and Bernier lost his seat, but this year it’s polling higher than anyone expected. 

Bernier, running an anti-immigration populist campaign similar to those seen in Europe, has latched onto O’Toole’s move leftward and is attacking him from the right. The party, while still at the fringe, could prove to be a major reason why the Conservatives may not win the election. 

But exactly where the PPC support (it appears to be polling in the middle single digits, but three times better than what they got in 2019) is coming from is disputed. While some claim it’s because of the collapse of the Green Party or voters that sat out the last election, Graves said his polling shows that it’s due to disaffected Conservative voters and voters who didn’t vote in the last election.

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"The Conservatives successfully wooed some of the Liberal voters in Ontario and British Columbia,” said Graves. “Those gains offset losses to the People’s Party because the vast majority of the PPC voters voted Conservative in the last election.”

“That’s one of the reasons (O’Toole) has been so adamant about not going along with the vaccine passport.” 

Insulating himself from attacks has been one of O’Toole’s biggest strengths during the election campaign. Quite possibly the only avenue of attack that consistently works for the Liberals is tying the federal leader to the disastrous policies of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. On Wednesday Kenney called a state of emergency for Alberta, after famously declaring COVID essentially over and promising the #bestsummerever back in July. Now, predictably, hospitals are overflowing and the system is on the brink of collapse.

This puts O’Toole in something of a Catch-22, said Graves. If he wants to win over folks in the centre he may need to tap into nationally popular policies like vaccine passports, which would then alienate some of the PPC voters that could return on election day. If he decides to do the opposite and come out strongly against vaccine passports, he risks losing the gains he made in the centre. 

Bratt said the PPC might be a double-edged sword for O’Toole. While it has indeed leeched some voters, the party’s staunch anti-vaccine passport stance, poor vetting, and racist policies cushion O’Toole from attacks and make him look moderate next to Bernier and his circus. 

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“If I’m O’Toole, I’m happy with that. I’m happy to see some of the anti-vax crazies, anti-immigrant people leave, and that he could appeal to the centre,” said Bratt. “It’s a real stretch for Trudeau to link O’Toole to the anti-vaxxers when they’re waving PPC signs.” 

It wasn’t all that long ago that O’Toole was positioning himself as a harder-right politician. During the 2020 Conservative leadership election, he described himself as a “true-blue Canadian” that needed to “take back Canada” and embraced more nationalistic policy promises. This switch in policy and tone as well as him changing his stance on several issues has garnered O’Toole a reputation of a flip-flopper. On Wednesday, former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, who suffered a stroke that paralyzed half his face, quipped that O’Toole “is doing something I cannot do—he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth.”

O’Toole certainly took a different route to politics than the son of Pierre Trudeau. The 48-year-old was in the Royal Canadian Air Force before eventually switching to a legal career. As a lawyer, he spent time as the Canadian in-house counsel for Procter & Gamble and, in 2011, registered as a lobbyist for Facebook. The corporate life came to an end when he ran for office in 2012 and was elected in the Durham riding near Toronto. During his time in government, he’s held several high-profile positions, including the minister of veteran affairs as well as the minister of foreign affairs. After Scheer’s brief reign, O’Toole took control of the Conservative Party in 2020. 

At the end of the day, it’s hard to look at this snap election being anything but a blunder by Trudeau, a mistake that very well could hand Erin O’Toole the keys to 24 Sussex Drive.

It’s a possibility Canadians should be prepared for. 

“If I was a betting man, I think the Liberals will get a plurality of seats,” said Bratt. “But there is still a very strong path for Erin O’Toole to become prime minister.”

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.