Why only appeal to conservative voters when you can become the darling of the entire political spectrum? Or that at least appears to be the strategy of Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole, as Canada hurdles toward a September general election.
But it wasn’t always thus. O’Toole was unveiled as the party’s new leader one year ago, and didn’t waste time before asserting himself as a less charismatic version of Donald Trump. Perhaps O’Toole had admired the frenzy that the former U.S. president had whipped up, and perceived an advantage from hitching his leadership to the culture wars and divisive rhetoric seen south of the border. Or maybe his concern was the growing popularity of the People’s Party of Canada, a fledgling far-right entity formed in 2018 by a former Conservative party leadership aspirant.
Whatever his reasons, O’Toole initially looked determined to lead Canadian politics down an uncomfortable path. “Take Back Canada” was the Trump-inspired slogan O’Toole employed during his successful party leadership campaign, along with the ominous rallying call to “join our fight.” Once installed as leader, he changed Conservative branding to look eerily similar to the Royal Canadian Air Force logo, in an attempt to emphasize his previous service record. The party’s fundraising wing then experimented with disinformation, claiming that “[Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau is rigging the next election in his favour.” And when much of the country eschewed typical Canada Day celebrations in favour of national self-reflection about Indigenous genocide, O’Toole briskly retorted, “It’s time to build Canada up, not tear it down,” and that, “I can’t stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day.”
Right-wing demagoguery had arrived in Canada.
Or had it?
Turning his attention well beyond the Conservatives’ traditional support base, O’Toole gradually began to court disenfranchised voters from across the political spectrum. His “Canada First” strategy, a blatant parroting of Trump’s “America First” policy based on economic protectionism, was used to appeal to blue-collars workers who feared their manufacturing jobs would depart overseas. But, trotted out alongside other Trump-inspired policies, this didn’t initially seem like a shift in policy for O’Toole.
Eight months into his leadership, however, O’Toole pivoted, attempting to entice left-wing and centrist voters even more than Trump had done. After years of the Conservative party rejecting market-based carbon pricing, O’Toole announced in April that he would offer a “carbon levy.”
He didn’t stop there. Since the general election was called in mid-August, O’Toole’s focus on the political left and centre has often overshadowed his interest in pandering to his own party’s typical voters. Progressive policy announcements have come thick and fast: endorsing safe-injection sites and treating illicit drug use as a health matter rather than as a criminal issue – both a considerable break from the party’s usual orthodoxy – as well as a pledge to take action on all recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding the legacy of residential “schools,” at which many Indigenous children were abused and killed.
O’Toole’s focus on making the Conservatives attractive to workers also intensified, including policies that would force the country’s largest corporations to include an employee on their boards of directors, and protect workers’ private-sector pensions from dubious accounting shenanigans.
So why exactly did a Trump admirer who briefly dealt in nationalist sloganeering that bordered on xenophobia pivot into a squishy centrist who courts the proletariat, all in just a matter of months?
The allure of power, of course.
The new Conservative party leader hasn’t experienced an epiphany that radically changed his ideological view of the world. The explanation is much simpler: he’s merely an opportunist. O’Toole has come so close to seizing power he can taste it, and will say whatever the electorate wants to hear if it will help him achieve it. He has become a political chameleon, willing to wear any ideological colour if it will grease his entry into the Prime Minister’s Office. No policy idea is too divergent, too contradictory to proffer. Left, right, centre: these have become abstract, passé terms that hinder the goal of enticing every voter.
The question is: will Canadians accept O’Toole the shapeshifter? Thus far, his strategy appears to be working, with the Conservatives creeping up in popularity, narrowly behind the Liberals. This may be partly due to Canadian voters having the least familiarity with O’Toole of all three major party leaders, giving him a relative blank slate despite his early Trumpist tendencies. But of concern to Conservatives is that O’Toole is the least liked of the party leaders, with one recent poll suggesting more Canadians find him to be “untrustworthy” and “fake” rather than to reflect their values or understand them.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberal party will also be keen to characterize O’Toole, but obviously in a much less flattering light. Armed with the savviest electoral machinery, Liberals are probably preparing attack ads that highlight O’Toole’s policy duplicity and early Trumpist inclinations, best unleashed after Labour Day when more Canadians will be paying attention to the election campaign.
O’Toole’s policy drift is a high-stakes gamble. It could backfire, causing Conservative voters to stay home on election day or throw a protest vote to the far-right People’s party. And if the Tories lose the election, party members could unceremoniously depose O’Toole, much like how former Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leader Patrick Brown was swiftly removed from power in 2018 after he ventured too close to the political centre for the provincial membership’s liking.
Will Erin O’Toole beguile disparate voters and become the next Prime Minister of Canada? Or will he fail to seduce progressives while simultaneously alienating his core supporters? It’s a fascinating ploy, and we’ll know its effectiveness in just a few weeks.