After what has to be ranked as one of the oddest leadership races in Canadian political history — punctuated by the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 — Erin O’Toole has emerged victorious as the new face of Canadian conservatism in Ottawa and on the national stage.
Throughout the race, it has to be noted, many pundits and observers also characterized it as one of the most boring contests Canadians may have witnessed in recent memory, which also plays into the overall lack of interest many expressed while Conservative Party leadership hopefuls were hitting the hustings and seeking the votes of party members. Much of this probably had to do with the perceived anointing of Peter MacKay as the primary favourite, but O’Toole has managed to steal a march on his opponent, and we’ll now be seeing much more of his face on the national scene.
People were certainly ready for the ouster of lackluster leader Andrew Scheer, and there were probably some quiet celebrations over this departure no matter who stepped into the leadership role. Scheer’s ponderous attempt at becoming prime minister in the most recent federal election left few supporters who felt he had the ability to lead the nation, and closing this unfortunate chapter in the party’s history will be a welcome change.
O’Toole squeezed into the leadership with late ballot support from two social conservatives who were also seeking the party’s top role, but it is too early to determine if O’Toole will be beholden to this wing of the party, which is often viewed as a thorn in the side of the so-called “big tent” Conservative model that came together as the Conservative Party in the 2000s.
Moderate conservatives often observe that under Canada’s political system, a united right is vital to any chance of achieving real power. But social conservatives in the party often want to advance policy choices and decisions which don’t appeal to a broad percentage of Canadians, and keeping this agitation in check while presenting a moderate front to the majority will be a balancing act for O’Toole. Failure to do so could see a stripping away of these elements in the party, and the possible creation of more conservative fringe parties like Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada which helped split the vote for the Conservatives in 2019.
With the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau wallowing in ethical challenges and bogged down in scandal, and now what can only be described as a politically-motivated decision to prorogue Parliament — chock one up to Stephen Harper’s political playbook, who opened the floodgates on that questionable practice — and O’Toole probably has a good chance at winning the favour of voters in an upcoming election.
Which may be coming sooner than later. While forcing a vote of non-confidence and toppling a sitting minority government is pretty much political old hat in Canada, sending voters to the polls in the midst of pandemic certainly isn’t. All parties will need to decide if this is in the best interests of Canadians, and perhaps most critically, whether it is something Canadians want.
Say what you will about the merits of Trudeau’s government, but Canadians can be a fickle bunch when it comes to elections. Prompting a vote at the wrong time in an attempt to improve your political standings has blown up in the face of more than one political party in Canada’s history.
And if an election comes too soon, O’Toole may be facing an insurmountable obstacle. Outside of party ranks, he remains largely an unknown figure to most national voters. Before making a stab at the role during the previous CPC leadership contest where he was bested by Scheer, most Canadians had never even heard of O’Toole. Leaders in this situation usually desire months of speeches, campaign stops and pontificating in the House — as an introduction to the nation they seek to lead — before going to the polls.
But if the Opposition has their way, an election could be forced in the short term, and O’Toole may be left in the unenviable position of seeking the votes of Canadians who have little if any knowledge of the national leader.
Canada’s political history tells us that doesn’t often add up to a majority victory.