This column is keeping a close eye on events in Ottawa. There’s a continuing drama there. It’s got a repetitive plot line, but while some players in the narrative change, the central figure remains the same. That’s Erin O’Toole.
Keeping a close eye means watching CBC News Network, in particular Power & Politics, CTV News Channel and such. It’s a no-fun assignment, but it does make a person an expert on household aids for the elderly and infirm. What’s being discussed often these past few weeks are attempts to undermine O’Toole’s leadership of the Conservative Party. Cabals have formed and been muted, and there’s been more than one attempt to launch a petition aimed at forcing a referendum on O’Toole’s leadership soon, rather than wait for a confidence vote in 2023.
These recalcitrant rebels accuse O’Toole of abandoning core Conservative principles and shifting the party’s policies to the centre leading up to the Sept. 20 federal election.
They’re missing the point – O’Toole’s weakness is his lack of charisma. In TV appearances and TV election ads, from his body language to his tone, even to his clothes and demeanour, O’Toole never came across as an inspiring, in-charge leader.
Winning in political campaigns is less about policy than it is about being a forceful presence in front of the cameras and in front of crowds of people. It can take ages to digest policy platforms, and few voters have the time to do it, but it takes only an instant to get the measure of a politician on TV, especially if they’re being asked questions. That’s just one area where O’Toole failed.
The backroom people who prep a leader for an election campaign have a bag of tricks they use. In O’Toole’s case he looked trimmer than before, wore a casual suit, often without a necktie, or no suit, and wore sneakers a lot. The idea was to make him suburban dad-like, relaxed and man-of-the-people. On the cover of “Canada’s Recovery Plan” O’Toole posed in a T-shirt with muscled arms folded, trying to suggest a Mike Holmes type. Nice try, but Mike Holmes has presence and charisma. O’Toole does not. Also, Mike Holmes’s brand has diminished a bit since he began hawking other companies that repair your bathroom or basement or something.
Humour and positivity matter, too. The audience projects hope onto such people, reassured and charmed by the confidence. And there’s automatic admiration of the unruffled, relaxed and self-deprecating manner of some politicians. O’Toole doesn’t do self-deprecation. (Maybe the sneakers were meant to signal that. Who knows? He was a perambulating confusion of media images.) Often politicians can seem self-conscious when they complain or rant, and O’Toole complained about the Liberals but he didn’t rant a lot. Maybe he was warned not to seem unhinged and angry. Finally, the most successful politicians are the rare ones who seems fully at peace with themselves and comfortable in their own skin. Watch O’Toole closely on TV and you don’t get that air of ease and confidence.
The attributes just listed, whether accrued naturally or taught, are excellent tools to help stand out in a media-saturated age, but to be successful, they must be used to deliver a discernible message. You can be grinning, cheery and utterly at ease on TV, but your message must be clear.
That’s where O’Toole’s already confusing media campaign went awry and it’s where those recalcitrant rebels might be a little bit right – the messaging on some issues was muddled. The most recent rebel against O’Toole’s leadership, Senator Denise Batters, made a video to state her complaints about O’Toole and she said, “On carbon tax, on guns, on conscience rights, he flip-flopped on our policies within the same week, the same day and even within the same sentence.”
Ouch. It’s exaggerating a bit, but is fundamentally correct. Policy positions shifted mid-campaign and changed from O’Toole’s 2020 leadership platform, making O’Toole’s answers to some questions hesitant and unclear. This was not restricted to the issues of guns and vaccinations. In the platform he used to become Conservative leader, he’d promised to defund the CBC: “I’ll defund CBC television and save taxpayers billions. Here’s how I’ll get it done: End all funding to CBC Digital; cut funding for CBC English TV and News Network by 50 per cent, with the goal to fully privatize CBC by the end of my first mandate; maintain funding for CBC Radio and Radio-Canada.”
During the federal election, there was an excruciating moment on CPAC when his new plan was explained as “a review assessing the viability of refocusing” the CBC. That’s what’s known as gibberish.
When you lack charisma, change positions and talk gibberish you are not an electable leader. That’s the glaring subtext of the drama unfolding in Ottawa. Never mind the Mike Holmes look; O’Toole doesn’t have the tools, in media-savviness or pizzazz, to be elected prime minister.
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