Running from behind, Erin O'Toole gets a high-stakes chance to reintroduce himself

For Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, what could be a make-or-break race to define himself in the eyes of voters starts now.

Conservative strategists say he may need a 'big swing' and a majority to get a chance to govern

Leader of the Opposition Erin O'Toole announces his party's climate change policy during an event in Ottawa on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
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For Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, what could be a make-or-break effort to define himself in the eyes of voters starts now.

Polling suggests his party begins a summer campaign behind the governing Liberals, who are eyeing a majority. The numbers also show that O'Toole, a former veterans affairs minister from a riding in the battleground Greater Toronto Area, is not particularly well-known or popular.

It hasn't always been easy for O'Toole to get a word in edgewise since winning the Conservative leadership last August. 

His leadership victory speech was delivered in the wee hours of the morning after technical glitches delayed the leadership results for hours. His debut as party leader in the House of Commons was postponed after he and his wife contracted COVID-19.

For most of the year, O'Toole — like other leaders — wasn't able to travel to different parts of the country. He's struggled to generate buzz against the backdrop of a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis and a Liberal prime minister willing to spend big to tackle it.

O'Toole: Trudeau is putting political interests first

As election speculation reached a fever pitch over the summer, O'Toole argued that with Canadians worried about a fourth pandemic wave and the spreading delta variant, it was no time to go to the polls. He made that argument despite the fact that his caucus members voted against the most recent federal budget — a confidence vote that could have triggered an election.

"Now is the time to make sure that we're ready for the risks of a fourth wave," O'Toole said Tuesday in Oakville, Ont. "Health and the economic well-being of our country needs to be paramount. And I've asked Mr. Trudeau to put that first. I'm worried that the Liberals will put their political interest ahead of the national interest."

O'Toole has tried to grow the party's tent with a climate plan that includes a form of carbon pricing for consumers and by reaching out to the LGBTQ community — both attempts to head off issues that haunted the Tories during the last campaign under Andrew Scheer.

But he's had to contend with people inside that tent contradicting his messages — like the grassroots party members who refused to add the statement "climate change is real" to the party's policy book and the 62 Tory MPs who voted against a Liberal bill to ban conversion therapy.

O'Toole himself voted for the Liberal conversion therapy bill, which died in the Senate when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dissolved Parliament.

"One of the important things for Conservatives to do before an election is to take away reasons for people not to vote for you," said longtime Conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool. "And I think Erin O'Toole has done all of that and that's to his credit."

Boessenkool, who teaches at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, played senior roles in four election campaigns for Stephen Harper.

He said O'Toole has "cleared out some of the underbrush" — those policy issues that keep some Canadians from voting Conservative. O'Toole is "not so far on the wrong side of the climate change debate that people use it as an excuse to vote against him," he added.

But Boessenkool said O'Toole has lots of work ahead of them because it's "pretty clear (voters) don't know who the heck he is yet."

Conservative strategist Dennis Matthews said O'Toole faces a dual challenge. "On the one hand, he's got to build his personal brand with voters, while also making the case — the strong case — that the Trudeau Liberals are the wrong people for what comes next," he said.

For Matthews, that means O'Toole has to "take some chances" and come out with bold policies that could cast him in a new light. The Conservatives, he said, must make themselves relevant in the parts of the country that are "growing and changing" the fastest — suburban and exurban neighbourhoods.

As the least well-known of the "big three" national party leaders, the pressure is on O'Toole to "get out there on his front foot and really tell the country what he's about in a big and loud way," Matthews said.

O'Toole should tap into parents' anxiety, strategist says

Boessenkool said he thinks two things could shift the landscape for O'Toole during a campaign: the delta variant and widespread anxiety among parents of school-aged children.

If a fourth wave comes and Canadians fume at Trudeau for calling an early election, Boessenkool said, the Conservative leader could find himself benefiting from their anger.

To appeal to those "burnt-out" parents, he said, O'Toole will first need to present a substantial child care policy that can "neutralize" what the Liberals are doing. Trudeau's government has signed agreements with multiple provinces this summer to bring child care costs to $10 a day within five years.

Boessenkool said he thinks O'Toole also has an opportunity to unveil ideas that show he understands the anxiety and stress felt by parents who have struggled through a brutal period.

He said an "emergency infrastructure program throwing a billion dollars at creating better ventilation in schools" could show that O'Toole grasps the concerns of parents and play well with women with children — a big pool of swing voters.

"If Conservatives just run on economic issues, that's not going to do it. They can't just be the party of fiscal conservatism and lower taxes and … jobs and the economy," Boessenkool said. "They've got to speak to the social anxieties that families are feeling."

While Conservatives typically can count on the support of roughly 30 per cent of the country at the start of a campaign, Matthews said they need to build a stronger base of support.

"This isn't ... adding little bricks on top here," he said. "This is something bigger."

Watch: O'Toole says Canada should consider boycotting 2022 Beijing Olympics

Conservative leader says Canada should consider boycotting 2022 Beijing Olympics

1 year ago
Duration 1:31
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole says Canada should consider boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics after Chinese courts upheld the death sentence for Robert Schellenberg on charges of drug smuggling.

Andrew Enns, executive vice-president of the polling firm Leger, said its polling shows the Conservatives have "pretty much capped out at 30 per cent" of the popular vote.

"It's not terrible but … if they end up with 30 per cent, that probably means a majority for the Liberals," Enns told CBC.

O'Toole remains a mystery to voters, Enns said. "Our data shows probably close to 50 per cent of Canadians couldn't name him if you asked who the leader was," he said.

He added there may be an upside for O'Toole to going into the campaign as a relative unknown, since "there will be a lot of voters who will be seeing him and hearing about him for the first time" and who might be impressed if he performs better than expected.

Enns said he thinks Tories are still struggling with a "party brand perception" that wasn't helped by the conversion therapy debate. But he added that O'Toole's climate plan could blunt his rivals' claims that the party doesn't take the issue seriously — which could make Conservative candidates more competitive in GTA ridings like Mississauga and Brampton that the party was able to win in 2011.

Enns said he isn't convinced that newer, smaller parties on the right will badly hurt O'Toole's Conservatives. He said he doesn't expect the People's Party to be a major force nationally. The new Maverick Party running candidates in Western Canada will cause "consternation" for the Conservatives and could lead to vote-splitting that might help Liberals, he said, but the Tories are unlikely to lose "bedrock conservative seats" out West.

NDP would not prop up a Tory minority

Another major challenge for O'Toole is the fact that he might need a sweeping victory to get a chance to govern at all. Singh already has said the NDP would not prop up the Conservatives if they win a minority.

"When you're … running from behind, you've got to have a big vision, and you've got to have some big ambitions and really swing for it," Matthews said. "There's no path to power here for Erin O'Toole to just add a couple of seats. He's got to make a big swing and aim for a majority government."

Asked whether the Conservatives could gain ground by critiquing the government's handling of the pandemic — including its early struggles to acquire vaccines — Matthews said that most elections are about the future.

Boessenkool said many Canadians have a "hangover of happiness" from the federal pandemic supports that helped families and businesses stay afloat. O'Toole, on the other hand, risks being tethered to Conservative premiers who are seen by some as having mishandled the pandemic.

"If I was in the Liberal campaign, I'd be more likely to run that Erin O'Toole equals Doug Ford, equals Jason Kenney, than I would Erin O'Toole is a buffoon at the front of a fake fighter jet," he said. (O'Toole served as a captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force and is a former Sea King helicopter navigator.)

While he may be starting from behind, both strategists say it's too early to count O'Toole out.

The Tory leader is a great communicator and an easy guy to like when you get to know him, Matthews said."When people start taking a look, there's a lot to like there," he said, adding that Liberals should avoid underestimating him.


    Ryan Maloney

    Senior Writer

    Ryan Maloney is a senior writer with CBC News. He previously worked at HuffPost Canada, where he was the senior politics editor.

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