Skip to main content
opinion

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In politics, language can matter as much as substance, which is why Erin O’Toole’s remarks in recent days have been so interesting. The Conservative Leader is clearly trying to rebrand his party. The question is whether he will succeed. The odds, in the short run at least, are against him.

On Monday, Mr. O’Toole softened his party’s stand on punishment for drug offences. “It’s not appropriate to have very serious penalties for Canadians who have problems with drugs,” he told reporters. “I don’t believe in very serious penalties for something like that.”

Under Stephen Harper, the Conservatives tried to ban safe injection sites and legislated mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences, which the Supreme Court struck down.

Compared with Mr. Harper, Mr. O’Toole is positively soft on crime.

Mr. O’Toole also convinced his caucus to expel Derek Sloan for his many offences, the latest being the MP’s failure to catch and reject a donation from a prominent neo-Nazi. He will doubtless welcome the decision of Lynn Beyak, whose defence of residential schools rendered her persona non grata in the Senate, to resign.

While lamenting the deficits that the Liberals accumulated even before the pandemic struck, the Conservative leader has said that it would take a decade or so for his government to balance the books and that job creation would remain the highest priority. Conservatives used to be deficit hawks. Now, they’re pigeons.

And in an interview last weekend, Mr. O’Toole rejected the notion of globalized trade if it threatened jobs in key industries and required closer ties to China.

“We have to recognize that people have been left behind, and globalization has been used by some countries that don’t follow the rules-based system,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I would like to see free trade amongst free countries that follow the rules.” Conservative governments launched virtually every free trade agreement this country has signed. But for Mr. O’Toole, globalization may have gone too far.

Mr. O’Toole and his advisers understand in a way the previous leader, Andrew Scheer, never did that Conservatives cannot win government without winning suburban Ontario. Most of the West and rural Ontario voted Conservative in the last six elections. They are the base. But to govern, the Tories must win in places such as Mississauga, Vaughan, Ajax and other ridings that surround Toronto.

These voters – who share much in common with their counterparts in the Lower Mainland outside Vancouver – are often immigrants. They are mildly conservative, both socially and economically, but flee from anything they consider extreme, on either the left or the right. They value capable, competent government above all. And they tend to vote as a block.

Mr. O’Toole believes he can appeal to these voters because, “I’m one of them. ... I am the kid from the suburbs who grew up with personal challenges and had to work hard, succeed, respect others.” He spent part of his youth in Durham Region, to the east of Toronto, and represents the area as an MP.

But remaking the Conservative image will not be easy. One problem is that party militants, the people who chose Mr. O’Toole as leader, chafe at centrist tendencies. They like their conservatism truer and bluer, tougher on crime, lower on taxes.

A much bigger problem is that Mr. Harper, who forged the Conservative coalition, damaged it in the last years of his government with talk of “barbaric cultural practices” and the like.

The Liberals always try to portray the Conservatives as extreme right-wingers with a hidden agenda. The Conservatives sometimes help. Mr. Scheer’s discomfort with the abortion issue. The Take Back Canada motto. MP Candice Bergen wearing a MAGA hat.

Repairing the Conservative brand in the eyes of suburban Ontario voters may take years, not weeks.

But the Liberals are vulnerable. Their economic agenda places a strong emphasis on green innovation at a time when most voters are more worried about their health and their jobs. And the initial rollout out of the COVID-19 vaccine has not gone well.

Convincing suburban Ontario voters that the Conservative Party is moderate, pragmatic, capable and ready to govern is a steep hill to climb. But Mr. O’Toole has at least taken the first steps. Let’s see how he does.

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.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct