O'Toole's convention speech gets mixed reviews as leader attempts to unite Conservative base

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says Canada is at a crossroads — and so are party strategists as they unpack the leader's policy convention speech.

A 'good start' or a disappointment? Party strategists are divided.

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In a half-hour speech delivered in the middle of a three-day party policy convention, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole pitched a vision of a Conservative Party "with the courage to grow, to be bold and to change."

"That's the Conservative Party that many Canadians are waiting for. They're waiting for us at those crossroads to show up. To say we have learned. To prove we have grown," O'Toole told party delegates on Friday.

Conservative strategists are giving the speech — O'Toole's first major address since becoming party leader last summer — mixed reviews.

Chad Rogers, a long-time party strategist and founding partner of Crestview Strategy, said O'Toole's remarks served as the leader's "big arrival speech" to the country.

"What he said today is, 'I'm not the traditional Conservative and I'm willing to welcome you in if you've been skeptical of me or my party previously.' It's a good start," Rogers told CBC Radio's The House in a panel discussion on Friday.

The Conservative policy convention this week marked a chance for the Conservatives to unite their party and define themselves ahead of a potential election this year. The House hears from strategists, activists and others on how it all played out. 32:45

Expanding the party's base

O'Toole has been been under pressure within the party in recent weeks from social conservatives who sought to advance anti-abortion policies at the policy convention — and from media reports quoting unnamed MPs saying they fear he's failed to set a clear agenda for an election that could arrive at any time.

Erika Barootes, a delegate from Alberta and a vice president of the communications firm Enterprise Canada, said that O'Toole made a solid effort to unite his party's many factions and is more likely now to "play it pretty safe in the middle and focus more on the economy."

But his speech didn't succeed in highlighting the diversity of Canada's economy, Barootes told host Chris Hall.

"He spent a lot of time trying to ... speak to these different audiences," she said. "I don't know if it was that he was running out of time, or couldn't change the narrative quick enough, but it didn't land, I think, as [strongly] as many folks were hoping."

'He came up a bit short'

Jenni Byrne, former adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper and CEO of Jenni Byrne and Associates, said O'Toole's speech failed to make the case for expanding the Conservative tent at a critical time.

"I think that, unfortunately for Erin, he came up a little bit short, considering that the message kind of coming out of the convention today was that we're heading into an election some time in the next month-and-a-half to two months," Byrne said.

"I think this was not a speech that was getting into the nitty-gritty that Conservative members and swing voters were looking to hear across the country."

WATCH | Erin O'Toole delivers speech to Conservative policy convention:

Erin O'Toole delivers speech to Conservative policy convention

Politics News

2 months ago
Opposition leader Erin O'Toole delivers speech to the 2021 Conservative policy convention. 29:48

A speech light on details

While O'Toole talked in his speech about the need for bold change to chart Canada's post-pandemic recovery, he sometimes skirted around the specifics, said Byrne.

"There were actually no details. So he could talk about a climate plan, he could talk about an economic recovery plan, but he actually didn't talk about the details," she said.

"You were really looking for the meat-and-bones of the economic recovery, the balance of the environment and our energy sector," Barootes said. "But I think that there were some things that he was trying to cater to that ... swing voter."

O'Toole's call for a national action plan on mental health, Barootes said, will show Canadians the party's "softer, compassionate side."

Rogers said that O'Toole's speech on Friday — which also mentioned a pandemic recovery plan aimed at supporting small businesses and creating jobs — was intended to present a vision rather than a comprehensive strategy.

"I think this was the unveiling of what we're going to see as a book with a lot of detail in it. And I think he's going to steal from the Mike Harris 1995 playbook, looking at the Common Sense Revolution, when I saw that very slick branding behind him on the stage," Rogers said.

"I expect Erin O'Toole just started and fired the first shot of this year's federal election."

With files from Chris Hall

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