Opinion: The O'Toole opportunity

The O'Toole opportunity

It will only take 100 days but we should all know by the end of November whether Erin O’Toole is ready to not only be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada but the next prime minister of Canada.

The fork in the road for O’Toole is quite simple. He can continue down the narrow-minded goat trail the nowhere-near-ready-for-prime-time Andrew Scheer was leading the party down or he can channel Rona Ambrose’s firm but gentle approach with Stephen Harper’s tight control of caucus and party to victory.

Federal Liberals are already mocking O’Toole for his early appointments, putting his own team of loyalists dating back to Harper to manage the party apparatus and plot strategy. That should actually alarm Team Trudeau because putting experienced hands on the wheel signals O’Toole is far more organized and competent than his predecessor and is ready for a snap election if necessary.

The disappointment of losing twice to Justin Trudeau has made many Conservatives even more bitter and angry, as Scheer made clear in his sweaty and petty farewell speech. His resentment, self-pity, entitlement and repulsive vitriol were on full display Sunday. That parting temper tantrum should be played to every Conservative candidate of how NOT to present yourself and your party to the electorate.

Unlike Scheer, O’Toole seems to realize that being introduced as the next prime minister of Canada at every party event doesn’t actually make it so. His acceptance speech Sunday night and his first media conference as leader on Tuesday made it clear he plans to present himself and his party in a new light.

On both occasions, he proudly declared his small-c conservative views, which means abortion is solely between a woman and her doctor while same-sex marriage and transgender rights are individual freedoms government is obligated to protect. He reminded reporters Tuesday that he was one of only 18 Conservative MPs who voted to pass a bill specifically enshrining transgender rights.

Of course, O’Toole took a tougher conservative stance during his leadership campaign, yapping about “cancel culture” and promising to “take Canada back.” (The quick answer when pressed on whom he’s taking Canada back from is “Justin Trudeau, of course. What did you think I meant?”)

There’s a big difference, however, between a leadership race, when candidates are vying for support from party loyalists, and a general election, when the audition for prime minister is with the entire country.

That doesn’t mean O’Toole offered something he’s not in order to win the leadership. Rather, he appears to believe he and his party can both advocate for minority rights while also recognizing the rights of other Canadians to question the expression of those rights without being labelled intolerant agents of hate.

On the surface, that looks like a narrow path fraught with political peril, except that it lines up surprisingly well with what many Canadians have been telling focus groups and pollsters for years - the same tolerance that led Canada to recognize progressive views on minority rights also needs to be extended to those with more traditional views, so long as they aren’t being hateful bigots about it. Progress on social issues is long overdue but government still needs to focus on the basics – the economy, jobs and service delivery.

But that’s drilling down into party policy and electoral manoeuvring, stuff the pundits and political junkies care far more about than many voters.

Under Scheer, Conservatives thought the goal was to beat Trudeau but that’s the result, not the goal. The military man in O’Toole should know the difference. Early indications point to the new Conservative leader eager to position himself strategically, as a credible alternative to Trudeau, with calm, thoughtful, decisive leadership during trying times.

Looking back, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives did not defeat Paul Martin’s Liberals in 2006. All Harper and the Tories did was offer a reasonable (read: not frothing at the mouth raging conservative) choice for Canadians fed up with Liberal mismanagement, ethical lapses and increasing detachment from the electorate.

That last part already sounds familiar.

O’Toole has the opportunity to deliver on the Harper recipe for Conservative electoral success – sunny ways but without the sanctimonious saccharine.

It will take cunning and discipline for O’Toole and the Conservatives to defeat their wounded but still formidable opponent. 

We’ll all know shortly which direction he will take the party.

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