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Canada's Conservative Party leader Erin O'Toole elbow bumps with a supporter as he campaigns for the 20th of September General election, at Prarieland Park in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on Aug. 20, 2021.

KAYLE NEIS/AFP/Getty Images

Nice guys, in Canadian politics, do not finish last: they do not even finish. Our political history is littered with the corpses of decent, principled leaders who never got a sniff at power, but were gutted and filleted by their less-encumbered opponents.

Parties in opposition tend to burn through one or two of the decent, principled types while they figure out what they stand for, before at last realizing that what they really stand for is power. Whereupon they promptly find someone sufficiently shameless to get them there.

The Conservatives under Sir John A. Macdonald mowed down a succession of high-minded Liberal leaders, until the Grits recruited a leader, in Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was just as eely as Macdonald. The Progressive Conservatives ran through Bob Stanfield and Joe Clark, fine men both, before settling on Brian Mulroney, who must have left his sense of shame in his other pants.

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Most recently, the Liberals dutifully selected as their leaders first Stéphane Dion, then Michael Ignatieff – decent, principled, and thoughtful to boot – then ran off with Justin Trudeau, who is floridly none of these.

So Conservatives must be thrilled to find Erin O’Toole showing promise of the requisite shamelessness. The Conservative leader has not just survived the inevitable Liberal attacks in the campaign’s first week, he has seemed almost to invite them, luring the Grits into wasting valuable rhetorical ammunition on a series of dummy controversies.

On vaccine mandates, on abortion, on health care, Mr. O’Toole has said things that at first sound difficult, controversial, or at least noteworthy, but which on closer examination turn out to mean nothing – nothing, that is, substantively different from Liberal policy, the status quo, or both. Liberal attempts to turn these into wedge issues have accordingly largely fizzled.

Some of this facility had been in evidence even before the Conservative platform was released. The Conservative promise to balance the budget “over the next decade” is a masterpiece of meaninglessness: the latest projections from the Parliamentary Budget Office show the budget will be all but balanced – a deficit of less than 1 per cent of GDP – inside of four years. It would require heroic acts of profligacy to prevent it from balancing in 10.

The pattern has since been repeated. On vaccine mandates, Mr. O’Toole suggested that he would not make vaccines mandatory for federal public servants, but rather would subject those who were not vaccinated to regular and rapid testing. The Liberals pounced, perhaps forgetting that their own policy, as set out in a Treasury Board memo posted the same week (since mysteriously deleted) was much the same: get vaccinated, or get tested.

On abortion, Mr. O’Toole’s vociferously pro-choice position seemed to deprive the Liberals of a target – until the release of the Conservative platform, with its vow to “protect the conscience rights of health-care professionals” who object to providing services such as abortion or assisted suicide. Again the Liberals pounced, only to find their wedge blunted once again: doctors are not required to provide those services now.

They are required to provide “effective referrals,” something Mr. O’Toole had promised to scrap during his leadership campaign. Would he still? Alas, no, as he later clarified: the promise now is merely to “protect” doctors’ existing conscience rights. The status quo, in other words.

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By the time the Liberals shifted their focus to health care, they were already looking punched out. Still, did they really think, in 2021, after so much talk of the perils of online misinformation, they could get away with posting a video of Mr. O’Toole saying he would allow provinces to contract with private, for-profit providers, while snipping out the bit about ensuring “universal access remains paramount”?

Again: private provision of services within a system of universal public insurance is common practice now – under the current, i.e. Liberal government. All the Liberal war room achieved by this ham-fisted gambit was to make themselves the issue, rather than their intended target.

Mr. O’Toole’s talent for double-talk may not make for much coherent policy. But as a survival tactic, its merits are undoubted. The point of a wedge issue is to force a party leader to choose between his base and the broader public. It takes some artful duplicity to wriggle out of this trap: to adopt a position of such bottomless vacuity, impenetrable yet suggestive, as to allow each group to take away from it what they prefer.

Yet that, so far, is what Mr. O’Toole seems to have achieved: saying just enough to fool his own supporters into thinking it meant something, but not so much as to leave others with the impression it meant anything. A better man couldn’t have managed it.

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