Skip to main content
opinion

Leader of the Opposition Erin O'Toole rises to deliver a statement on the National Day of Observance of COVID-19 in Ottawa on March 11, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The guy doing some work on the house – it was the first time we’d met – liked to talk politics. He wasn’t too pleased with Justin Trudeau, but neither did he think much of Erin O’Toole.

My new friend still hasn’t decided which party he’ll support in the next election. And that could be good news for the Conservative Leader.

Mr. O’Toole is in a trough, right now. Some MPs oppose his emphasis on the need to fight climate change. Others disagree with his support for the rights of labour, for the rights of women and sexual minorities, for high levels of immigration, for only a gradual approach to reducing the deficit.

Anti-abortion activists are making a play to dominate next week’s policy convention. The party is lagging in the polls: Mr. O’Toole’s warning to the Prime Minister not to force an election until the pandemic has abated has a whiff of desperation.

The Conservatives are starting to act like a party comfortable in opposition, happier beating ideological drums than in doing the hard work needed to win a plurality of ridings. This makes Mr. O’Toole look weak, which in politics is fatal.

That’s one side of the coin. Here’s the other.

The list of resolutions to be debated at next week’s policy conference is out, and there is nothing on abortion or other issues favoured by social conservatives. Some resolutions – such as one that would require future leadership candidates to demonstrate support from within caucus, and another that would limit the rights of newly signed up members to vote for a leader – appear aimed at preventing social conservatives from capturing the party.

Although anti-abortion activists have taken control of some riding associations, enough presidents stayed loyal to ensure that no resolutions made it to the floor for debate that would embarrass the party.

At the virtual convention next week, social-conservative delegates may or may not be able to take control of the party’s national council. But while they could make mischief on that body, the council has limited power to undermine the leader.

If Mr. Trudeau is thinking of dropping a budget in April and then calling an election on it, he should think again. The Liberals were slow to introduce Bill C-19, legislation that would make it safer to conduct a general election during a pandemic by extending voting days and permitting mail-in ballots.

The bill is in second reading, and could be months away from passage. If Mr. Trudeau were to call an election, the opposition would claim that he was putting the health of Canadians at risk by forcing a vote under unsafe conditions, and they’d be right.

Furthermore, although vaccines are starting to arrive in bulk, Canada’s vaccination rate continues to lag, not only the United States and Britain, but countries such as Hungary, Morocco, Chile and dozens of others. Do the Liberals really want to campaign on that record?

Most importantly, Mr. O’Toole’s policy priorities are the right ones. The suburban, middle-class voters who choose governments are worried about climate change; they don’t want to reopen the culture war over abortion or same-sex marriage. And even for fiscal conservatives, deficit reduction has to take second place to protecting workers while the postpandemic economy reboots.

Finally, election campaigns are unpredictable things. Who thought in summer 2015 that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals would win a majority government in the fall? Who in 2016 thought Donald Trump would become U.S. president? In 2019, some believed Mr. Trudeau would not survive the mid-campaign revelation that he had worn blackface; others didn’t expect the Conservatives to win the popular vote in that election.

That said, opposition leaders typically don’t win elections first time out. But if the Conservative Leader is able to put forward a credible, innovative platform – which we should be seeing now, not later – and limit the Liberals to another minority government, then he could do well in the election that follows.

If, that is, Mr. O’Toole can get his restive caucus under control, beat back the so-cons, and regain some measure of control over his own party.

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.