Erin O’Toole is stuck up in a tree, and he can’t get down.
His own party is at the bottom, waiting, and he doesn’t know what to do. His voters are waiting. His leadership-race supporters are there too and, well, that’s a bit awkward.
He doesn’t dare go anywhere people might ask questions about politics, or government, or issues of the day, because one of those questions might be about vaccines, and whether his MPs are vaccinated. So Mr. O’Toole doesn’t go out into the public eye much. He doesn’t say much.
The last time he did go out in person to face questions from reporters was on Oct. 27, to deliver the latest iteration of his policy on vaccination for Conservative MPs (those who don’t get vaccinated won’t show up at the Commons) but he took six questions, gave fewer answers, and strode out of the room.
If you wanted to know what the Conservative Leader thought about Alberta’s referendum on equalization the week before that press conference, you were out of luck.
That’s quite an omission, since Alberta’s United Conservative Premier, Jason Kenney, is calling on Ottawa to change the system after a vote for equalization to be removed from the Constitution. Mr. O’Toole’s party includes 30 of Alberta’s 34 MPs in Parliament, so it is primarily Conservatives who speak for the province’s role in Confederation.
“None of them would take a position. Erin O’Toole wouldn’t take a position,” complained Jay Hill, interim leader of the Maverick Party, a fledgling Western separatist party that fielded 24 candidates in the September election. He argues the formula for equalization is unfair to Alberta.
It is worth noting that Mr. Hill, a former Conservative MP and cabinet minister also now argues it is politically impossible to speak for Alberta on equalization without alienating Quebec and other parts of the country. Maybe Mr. O’Toole also feels it is a no-win question. When The Globe and Mail asked for his position on the referendum, a spokesperson said in an e-mail that the Conservatives “support the rights of provinces to propose amendments to the Constitution that address inequities in Canada’s governance structures” but offered no view on the substance.
But then Mr. O’Toole hasn’t been saying much about anything since the election. He has taken reporters’ questions three times since Sept. 20. Mr. Trudeau has held eight press “availabilities.” Usually it’s the opposition pushing to get its points across.
This week, while Mr. Trudeau was in Glasgow for COP26 climate talks, reiterating plans to cap and then reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry, Mr. O’Toole had nothing to say. (He did submit an op-ed to a newspaper about raising the flag so it can be lowered for Remembrance Day.) NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was in Glasgow, too. Mr. O’Toole did not hold any public events.
In general, Mr. O’Toole’s Conservatives have flown below the radar. While Mr. Trudeau delayed the recall of Parliament to Nov. 22 and took an unusually long time to name a cabinet, Mr. O’Toole hasn’t gotten around to naming a shadow cabinet of MPs who speak for the party on specific issues.
It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for Mr. O’Toole. His own party can be a fractious bunch, with some insisting he stand up for unpopular things. He doesn’t want to look like he’s defending anti-vaxxers, but doesn’t dare demand that all his MPs get vaccinated. He tried to find a neat phrase to make that sound better, but it didn’t.
He still has to face his own party’s complaints that he promised to be a True Blue leader and shifted left, promised not to propose a carbon tax but did, and promised to loosen gun restrictions but flip-flopped. Mr. O’Toole’s leadership is not secure.
No wonder he seems to feel like he can’t say much.
In the meantime, Erin O’Toole stories are mostly about those complaints. Earlier this week, The Canadian Press ran a story quoting leaders of small-c conservative organizations, including representatives of the gun lobby that was instrumental in his leadership campaign, criticizing Mr. O’Toole. Global News ran a piece citing unnamed MPs underwhelmed with his leadership saying they were watching his next moves closely.
What to do? Mr. O’Toole doesn’t seem to know. He is treed. But he can’t stay up there forever.
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