Who is Erin O’Toole? A threat to Trudeau


The one thing Erin O’Toole has made clear in his first few days as leader of the Conservative party of Canada is how much better he is at this than his predecessor. 

He turned up after his late-night victory in the leadership race on Sunday and sounded like a human being, and managed not to come off like a sneering jackass.  And with that, he sailed over the low bar of expectations set by former leader Andrew Scheer.

Scheer’s last act as leader was to give a dim, mostly unlistenable speech looking back at his time at the helm and where conservatives should go next.  Just about the only thing that made any news from the speech was his section bashing the media. 

“In times like these, it is even more important for every single Conservative to stay united and do everything we can to work together to spread our message of hope,” Scheer said.  “It doesn’t matter what kind of Conservative you are.  Our party needs all of you and we need you to go out and find more people who share our beliefs.  Please stay involved.  Be bold.  Think.  Challenge the mainstream media.  Don’t take the left-wing media narrative as fact.”

He then went on to name a few dubious news — I’m using the word loosely here — organizations as where conservatives should turn.

This is emblematic of his time as leader: needlessly stupid.

O’Toole is smart enough to know that saying things like that just antagonizes reporters, turning navel gazing media stuff into the major headline.  Scheer, after years in the big chair, never seems to have learned that lesson. 

Nothing else the former leader said that night in his Young Conservatives-style speech made any news or impression on the press pack, and will thus fade into nothing.  The unremarkable once again goes unremarked upon.

See, O’Toole knows better.  He knows to just hire the people that run dubious right-wing sites and social media accounts to get the real benefits.  The power move is doing the thing, not yapping about it.

But beyond early style points for answering questions and making a statement that doesn’t leave the watcher cringing, we don’t quite know what sort of leader O’Toole will be.

When he first ran for leader — placing third behind Maxime Bernier and Scheer — O’Toole positioned himself as a moderate sort of candidate.  This time around he played the part of a shitposting online brawler.

Who is the true O’Toole?  Hard to say.  The first O’Toole seemed more a genuine expression of himself, but it didn’t get him the leadership, brawling did.  There’s no reason to expect the genuine person to come out, this is politics.  Sincerity of action isn’t a thing these days.

And it’s not just that he ran first as one type of politician, then a second time as another to try and win.  It’s with whose support he won with.  Social conservatives pushed him over the top in the final round.  O’Toole was the beneficiary of the voters from the socially conservative candidates, once they’d been eliminated from the counting.

He says however he is personally pro-choice.  What he has publicly promised is that his caucus can vote how they wish on issues of conscience.  What this looks like in practice will depend on the issue, one imagines.

O’Toole has at least committed to some of the symbolic gestures that are demanded of politicians of late.  For example, he will march in certain pride parades.  “I will not participate in the Toronto Pride Parade while its policy is to exclude Canadians, especially uniformed police officers,” he said back in January.

With the way 2020 has gone, it’s hard to say where we’ll be by the next time parades roll around — next year? — but at the moment our southern neighbours are rising up against brutal and murderous police actions.  And while mass protests have mostly calmed down here, there’s no reason to expect that to continue indefinitely.  Little, if any, progress has been made on even tepid police reforms, never mind things like defunding, that have been demanded by activists.  Police continue to operate with impunity.

Hard to imagine police being welcomed as pride marchers in the future.  Could be that in the end, O’Toole will decide he doesn’t need to keep that particular pledge.

Whatever comes next is hard to divine, there is a lot in play.

But the next few weeks will be telling.  When Parliament returns from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s — quite dastardly — proroguing, O’Toole will be faced with a Speech from the Throne and a confidence vote.  With a bit of assistance from the other opposition parties he could conceivably get to an election.

But it’s a country in a strange sort of stasis.  However badly the country was hit by the pandemic, it seemed for a time it would be much worse.  A second wave has not yet arrived. 

It seems only a matter of time before another police officer brutalizes someone else on camera in a ghastly way.  Issues of pipelines being built across Indigenous lands — which, you’ll remember led to country-wide blockades — have not been resolved.

Which O’Toole shows up if things escalate once more?  The moderate sounding O’Toole, or O’Toole the barking hardliner?

About the only thing we can say for sure at this point is he’s going to put a more competent face on the Tories.  Is he strong enough to take down Trudeau’s Liberals?  Maybe not.  But Scheer came pretty close, counting out O’Toole would be a grave mistake.

Photo Credit: Calgary Herald

More from Robert Hiltz.     @robert_hiltz

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