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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole puts on his mask after speaking to the media in Fredericton, Aug. 28, 2021.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

There was probably no way Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole could have defended his platform promise to repeal the Liberals’ 2020 ban on certain firearms without risking support from crucial suburban voters. Not with just two weeks left until election day, that is.

The public’s literacy on gun regulations in this country is remarkably pitiful, influenced heavily by the carnage we see in the United States and premised on the mistaken assumption that our laws aren’t all that different. The Liberals know just how to exploit that illiteracy, passing meaningless laws that give the impression of real action and labelling those who object to these symbolic gestures as frothing gun nuts who don’t care about public safety. The latest example came in the form of the Trudeau government’s 2020 “ban” of some 1,500 so-called assault-style weapons, which was really just an arbitrary reclassification of some firearms; it prohibited many scary-looking and notorious types of guns (such as the Ruger Mini-14 rifle, used by Marc Lépine in the École Polytechnique massacre), while leaving others that are functionally identical legal for purchase, sale and use. The Liberals also declined to introduce a mandatory buyback program (though their platform includes a promise to later enact one), meaning that those who currently own these firearms have been permitted to keep them. And they offered little by way of concrete measures to tackle handguns, which are the guns most often used in violent crimes.

So there is a credible basis on which the Conservatives could have maintained their opposition to the Liberals’ gun policy, had they only anticipated the Liberal campaign machine’s eminently predictable sloganeering that Mr. O’Toole wanted military-style guns on our streets. But for whatever reason, they didn’t see it coming. So rather than explain why repealing the Liberals’ symbolic gun ban would have virtually no effect on crime in this country – and why a buyback program would be an expensive solution to the wrong problem – Mr. O’Toole opted for the easy, politically expedient route, and flip-flopped. The Conservatives will maintain the current list of prohibited weapons after all, Mr. O’Toole said last weekend, contradicting what was written in his own platform.

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If the campaign becomes a culture war, it’s advantage Liberals

This was not the first time in this campaign that the Conservative Leader has abandoned a previous position for obviously strategic reasons. When the government announced, a few days before the campaign started, that it would require vaccination for federal employees and domestic travellers, the Tories initially resisted: “Conservatives support Canadians’ right to determine their own health choices,” they declared in a statement. But after an onslaught of questions on the election campaign’s first day about why Mr. O’Toole didn’t support a measure that, according to polling, a majority of Canadians were behind, he capitulated – the Conservatives would see to a version of a vaccine mandate of their own, whereby federal employees and domestic travellers would have to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing.

The same thing happened when abortion access became the pre-eminent campaign topic about one week later. During his leadership campaign, Mr. O’Toole promised he would protect the conscience rights of health care professionals whose beliefs “prevent them from carrying out or referring patients” for procedures such as medically assisted dying or abortion. An abbreviated version of that promise made it into the Conservatives’ campaign platform, upon which the Liberals seized as evidence of Mr. O’Toole’s supposed secret agenda to curb abortion access. After being dogged with questions about what, exactly, a Conservative government would require in terms of physician referrals, Mr. O’Toole backtracked on his leadership pledge and said that doctors would, in fact, be required to refer patients for procedures even if those clash with their personal beliefs.

Mark Twain once said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes.” The same might be said of Mr. O’Toole and his position on just about anything that might risk alienating moderate prospective voters. Certainly, the party has smartened up from its days of Andrew Scheer trying to blush his way out of questions about abortion and same-sex marriage, which allowed the Liberals to fill in the blanks about what a Scheer-led government might mean for progressive values in Canada. But this Conservative war room, though certainly more adept at course-correcting when the Leader starts veering into troubled territory, hasn’t quite figured out how to anticipate the direction from which the Liberals will attack. As a result, Mr. O’Toole has spent the duration of the campaign being led around by his nose, reneging on his old positions when it looks like they might get him into trouble.

A pre-emptive communications strategy might have spared Mr. O’Toole the embarrassment of being perceived as willing to say anything to maintain or grow support. But now Mr. O’Toole is left sheepishly adding asterisks to his campaign platform. And if there are still those who don’t like Mr. O’Toole’s position on something, well, all they have to do is wait a few minutes.

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