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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to the media, Aug. 18, 2021 in Quebec City.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

“Hi. I’m not Andrew Scheer.”

That was essentially how Erin O’Toole tried to introduce himself to Quebeckers in a speech Wednesday night. Subtlety is not a virtue in politics, so while Mr. O’Toole did not mention his predecessor by name, he did everything but pull out a picture of Mr. Scheer with a big red X over his face.

Mr. O’Toole, in Quebec City for his first big pitch to the province, said he realized that Quebeckers have hesitated to put their faith in the Tories in the past because the party was unclear on social issues. Then he said he was pro-choice. And that he had always been pro-choice. “Period.” Oh, and one more thing: “I also believe in climate change.”

It requires no political genius to see why he distanced himself from Mr. Scheer. In the 2019 election campaign, the Tories were doing fine in Quebec until the first French-language leaders debate, when Mr. Scheer fumbled questions over his personal anti-abortion views. The Conservatives collapsed in the province, and the Bloc Québécois emerged as the main opposition to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

So Mr. O’Toole, still relatively unknown, is leading off his Quebec campaign with two main planks: (A) He’s not Justin Trudeau and (B) he’s not Andrew Scheer. As political strategies go, it’s not a bad start.

But this is a Canadian federal election in the 21st century, and he was talking about abortion. The Liberals were waiting.

“Tonight in Quebec, Erin O’Toole pretended to be pro-choice,” Liberal candidate and cabinet minister Maryam Monsef tweeted in a multipart thread she posted in both official languages. “He did the same thing in his platform. But in reality, he’ll let his team bring forward legislation to restrict abortion access. That’s the same position as Andrew Scheer.”

To recap: Erin O’Toole says he is not Andrew Scheer, and the Liberals say he is.

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By now, it is a Liberal campaign tradition to fire at the Conservatives on abortion, as they did when Stephen Harper was the Tory leader. Later, the Liberals spent the first week of the 2019 campaign in a bomb-the-bridges effort to point out the anti-abortion ties of Conservative candidates. It might have come up earlier this time if the Liberals hadn’t been using vaccine mandates as their preferred wedge issue.

In 2019, Mr. Scheer insisted, just as Mr. Harper had before him, that he had no plans to legislate on abortion. But his personal views, and the way he uncomfortably dodged questions about them, tripped him up anyway. So when Mr. O’Toole declared himself to be an anti-Scheer on Wednesday and called himself pro-choice many times on Thursday, it was his way of putting a 10-foot pole between himself and the abortion issue.

Except for one thing. The Conservative platform has a section about protecting the “conscience rights of health care professionals.”

That’s a sop to the social conservatives in the Conservative base – Mr. O’Toole, after all, wooed them in the Conservative leadership race. Doctors in Canada aren’t required to perform abortions if they don’t want to – but Ontario, for example, requires those who won’t perform abortions to refer patients to other doctors. The Conservatives suggest they will “protect” health workers from that.

The Liberals saw it as an opening to suggest Conservative MPs would try to restrict access to abortion, and Mr. Trudeau trotted out a new line: “Pro-choice isn’t power for doctors to choose. It’s the power for women to choose.”

It was a pointless mistake for the Conservatives to raise conscience rights. Mr. O’Toole told reporters that he would protect health workers’ conscience rights on abortion in much the same way the Liberal government protected doctors’ conscience rights on assisted dying.

The problem is, the federal government can’t regulate medical practice. That’s provincial jurisdiction. Ottawa was able to legislate on assisted dying because it required an amendment to the Criminal Code. Presumably, the pro-choice Mr. O’Toole doesn’t really intend to put abortion in the Criminal Code for the first time since the 1980s, but the Conservative press office wouldn’t clarify. Still, the tactic of applying a 10-foot pole to abortion should be easy to understand.

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