Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy and a former head of communications to prime minister Stephen Harper.
If you want to understand how much the Conservative Party of Canada has changed since its inception, look no further than the fate of Peter MacKay, one of the men who birthed the party 17 years ago. Mr. MacKay is smarting today after watching Erin O’Toole skate away with the trophy that so many predicted was his at the start of the race for the Conservative Party leadership. It wasn’t quite missing an open goal on a breakaway, but it still counts as a spectacular failure. Mr. MacKay was both outsmarted and outworked, but in the end, Mr. O’Toole won because he understood a core truth about his party better than his rival: that the Conservative Party of Canada is no longer the coalition of Progressive Conservatives and Reformists it was when Stephen Harper took the united party’s helm in 2004. The current coalition looks much different: It is more mistrustful of Bay Street and institutions and more in tune with the struggles of smaller communities.
That was illustrated by third-place finisher Leslyn Lewis’s second-ballot victory in the popular vote. And while critics will snark that Ms. Lewis was only a stalking horse for the party’s significant social-conservative support, this view ignores Ms. Lewis’s significant appeal across the country. There’s a reason so many preferred her to Derek Sloan, the other out-and-out social conservative: A lot of Conservatives clearly liked what they saw in the positive, confident, immigrant Black female Toronto lawyer. Her mere candidacy helps chip away at the myth the Conservative Party is inherently hostile to any or all of these things.
Alas, that narrative lingers in many places, including in the press – and for good reason. If Mr. O’Toole is to make the most of his leadership, he must work quickly to debunk it at every opportunity.
Here, Mr. O’Toole’s understanding of the modern Conservative Party might give him more leeway as he seeks to broaden the party’s appeal. Mr. O’Toole certainly played to the Conservative base with some of his campaign pledges, such as defunding the CBC, but he’s savvy enough to know that the angry, ranty image of the party – typified by outgoing leader Andrew Scheer’s chippy farewell speech – doesn’t play well enough to get the Conservatives back into power. He’ll need a more compelling and mature offer.
Thankfully, Mr. O’Toole seems willing to grasp this nettle. “We must continue to point out Liberal failings and corruption,” he said in his late-night victory speech. “But we must also show Canadians our vision for a stronger, more prosperous and more united Canada.” Amen. As tempting as it might be to focus on the current Liberal mess with WE Charity, he is correct to prescribe more emphasis on constructing a distinct road map for where the country should go now as it recovers from the novel coronavirus and its continuing effects. Justin Trudeau, after all, has already prorogued Parliament so as to turn his government’s resources to this important task.
The trick for Mr. O’Toole will be to apply conservative principles to Canada’s current problems and not just offer up Liberal-lite fare, as many Conservatives clearly feared Mr. MacKay would have. He must find a way to put family, fairness, hard work and dignity together in a way that doesn’t spell either severe cuts or billions in new spending. It’s a big ask on a potentially tight timeline, with a Prime Minister who is clearly spoiling for a fight.
Fortunately – or, rather, sadly – the opportunity is there for a new approach. The pandemic has demonstrated that a lot of what Canadians thought were solid foundations are actually shifting sands. Flexible, low-paid work – once the preserve of those without education or who are new to the country – is now the reality for millions of highly educated Canadians, many of whom are entering what should be their prime earning years. Getting the policy prescriptions right to reverse these trends as the virus recedes would appeal to both immigrant communities such as Ms. Lewis’s, as well as the younger voters in cities that Conservatives have spent years turning off.
It won’t be easy. But this is where the other great quality demonstrated by Mr. O’Toole in the leadership race – hard work – will pay off. To outskate Mr. MacKay, the Member of Parliament for Durham sized up his task, devised a plan to accomplish it and then worked relentlessly until he delivered.
But there is no rest for the weary. Mr. O’Toole must now repeat his trick on a much grander stage.
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