O'Toole's pitch to get Conservatives to embrace 'change' may be off to a shaky start

In time, Erin O'Toole may present an election platform that differs markedly from the policies of the Harper years. So far, however, the Conservative leader appears to be more interested in talking about change than actually pursuing it.

Polls show the party needs to do something different — but does O'Toole know yet what that might be?

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Dec. 3, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Erin O'Toole told Conservatives this weekend that their party must change — because if it doesn't, he said, it won't be able to win the votes necessary to defeat Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the next election.

And if the Liberals do win, he added, they'll be able to implement their own changes — changes that O'Toole cast as frightening and potentially ruinous.

But O'Toole didn't tell Conservatives exactly how they need to change. And then delegates delivered a potentially damaging vote on climate change policy that suggests his party base might not be ready to move very far.

O'Toole is on solid ground when he says the Conservative Party needs to try something different. His own polling numbers make that obvious. But so did the last federal election.

In 2019, Andrew Scheer's Conservatives ran on an implicit promise to return to the policy agenda of Stephen Harper's government. Scheer promised to smile more than his predecessor did but stopped short of offering a new approach — particularly on climate change.

The differences between Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper as Conservative leaders tended to be differences in tone, not policy. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

The Conservatives won 34 per cent of the popular vote in that election. That was two points better than the party's performance under Harper in 2015, but its national result in 2019 was inflated by the massive Conservative turnout in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Ontario and Quebec — where 199 of the country's 338 ridings are located — the Conservatives actually lost ground under Scheer.

A year and a half later, O'Toole's Conservatives are sitting at 30 per cent nationally. And O'Toole's personal approval rating might be even more of a problem.

According to survey results released by Abacus Data last week, 23 per cent of Canadians are committed to voting Conservative in the next election and another 23 per cent would consider voting Conservative.

But as the Abacus numbers point out, the differences between those two groups are substantial. Compared to those who have decided already to vote for O'Toole's party, those potential Conservative voters are younger, more diverse, much more concerned about climate change and much less angry about Justin Trudeau.

Embracing 'change' without defining it

"We must present new ideas, not make the same arguments hoping that maybe this time more Canadians will come around to our position," O'Toole told Conservatives on Friday evening. "We are never going to win over Canadians just by relying on Justin Trudeau to continue to disappoint."

O'Toole himself certainly has changed since he ran for the leadership last year. There was nothing in Friday's speech about "cancel culture" or the "radical left." He didn't offer any tips for winning debates with the "woke left," as he did last fall just months after winning the leadership.

But after telling Conservatives that they need to find the "courage" to pursue "bold" changes, O'Toole said little to nothing about what that might look like.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper attends a Stampede breakfast in Calgary, Alberta on Saturday, July 4 , 2015. The Conservatives under Andrew Scheer surpassed the party's 2015 popular vote performance — but not where it counted. (Larry MacDougal)

Perhaps O'Toole will soon lay out a series of innovative new policies that deviate markedly from the Harper era. But for now, he seems more interested in saying the Conservative Party has changed than in actually changing the Conservative Party.

As he has before, O'Toole singled out private sector union workers and organized labour as audiences he wants to target. But he didn't say what he wanted the party to offer those voters.

In a separate missive to party members last week, O'Toole said the wealthiest Canadians should "pay their fair share." But he did not use his speech to call for a new approach to taxation.

O'Toole said his party must have a "serious" and "comprehensive" plan for climate change. But he doubled down on his criticism of the current federal carbon price and fell back on a framing that casts "the environment" as a discrete issue — as opposed to a broader view that sees climate policy as intertwined with almost all other areas of public policy.

"As important as climate change is, getting our economy back on track is more important," he said.

In his prepared remarks, he said he wanted to defeat the "lie" that the Conservative Party is a party of "climate change deniers." On Friday night and then again during a question-and-answer session with party members on Saturday afternoon, O'Toole declared that the "debate" over climate change is over.

But in between those two pronouncements came the news that Conservative delegates had rejected a resolution that would have declared that "climate change is real" and "the Conservative party is willing to act" — while committing the party to targeting high emitters and supporting innovation.

The headlines generated by that vote might be a serious setback to O'Toole's goal of rebranding his party. Liberals will no doubt be happy to remind him of that vote at every opportunity in the weeks and months ahead.

Trudeau and the 'reimagined' economy

Unless O'Toole is willing to have a frank conversation with the membership about what it might take to reach Canada's emissions reduction targets — including net-zero by 2050, which O'Toole has endorsed — it might be very difficult for him to present the sort of credible climate plan that could help him win an election.

In the meantime, O'Toole says he is very concerned about the Trudeau government's plans to "reimagine" the economy. O'Toole told Conservatives on Friday that those plans entail "unfunded, unknown and untested changes that will leave millions more Canadians behind."

The word "reimagine" was plucked from remarks the prime minister made to an international summit last September. Trudeau told that gathering that when the world emerges from the pandemic, there will be an opportunity "to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts, to reimagine economic systems that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality and climate change."

What does O'Toole want to do?

In broad strokes, the Trudeau government's post-pandemic agenda was laid out in the throne speech that same month: expanding child care, reforming employment insurance, providing new training for workers, combating systemic racism and accelerating the transition to a clean economy, among other things.

But beyond O'Toole's assertion that what the Liberals have in mind is alarming and potentially divisive (he contends that the Liberal plan would involve Ottawa picking and choosing which jobs are worth supporting), it's still not clear what the Conservative counter-offer will be.

To be fair, the Liberals haven't detailed all of their own plans either. But after the Trudeau government tables a budget — probably in April — O'Toole will have to grapple with whatever the Liberals propose. At that point, it might become apparent just how much change O'Toole is actually willing to embrace.

This weekend, O'Toole established that he doesn't want to be associated either with Scheer's platform of 2019 or the throne speech the Trudeau government presented in 2020. But there is a vast gulf between those two things.

Still unknown is where the Erin O'Toole of 2021 intends to land — or how wide a runway his party's most loyal supporters are willing to give him.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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