To better understand the transformation taking place inside the Conservative Party of Canada today, one needs to travel back in time – 16 years, in fact. And across an ocean.
The scene is a conference of the Conservative Party of Great Britain held in the seaside resort of Blackpool. On stage is 39-year-old David Cameron, who is vying for his party’s leadership. Delegates are in a sour mood, gathered, as they are, in the shadow of the party’s third consecutive defeat at the hands of Labour.
Mr. Cameron lays out a vision to alter the way Conservatives approach everything from education to health care. He reiterates his support for same-sex marriage, despite vehement opposition from many inside the hall. He makes clear that if the Conservatives are to regain power, they need to become a more modern, more compassionate party, one that demonstrates that it genuinely cares for the plight of the less fortunate, for those too often ignored by government.
“There’s one thing [Labour] fears more than anything else,” Mr. Cameron tells the delegates. “A Conservative party that has the courage to change.”
He would leave the convention as his party’s next leader. Five years later, he would be Prime Minister.
Mr. Cameron’s pivotal speech, and the dramatic policy makeover it incited, has become an explicit reference point for CPC leader Erin O’Toole and his brain trust. The parallels between Mr. Cameron’s situation 16 years ago and Mr. O’Toole’s today are obvious. In 2005, the Tory brand in the U.K. was in the toilet and its vote share diminishing. The party had earned a reputation for possessing a nasty, hardened edge and for being out of step with contemporary thinking on many of the most important issues of the day.
All things Mr. O’Toole and his closest advisers believe mimicked the situation the CPC found itself in after its second consecutive electoral loss in 2019.
Mr. O’Toole’s decision to use contemporary circumstance to compel change has resulted in one of the most substantive realignments of conservative dogma in Canada in decades. In the process, the Conservative leader has alienated social conservatives and strained relations with the country’s captains of industry.
Perhaps the biggest change, however, has been a new focus on the working-class voter – a demographic that Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, skillfully targeted during the 2019 election and which is credited with delivering him a healthy majority. In his efforts to lure these folks into the Conservative fold here in Canada, Mr. O’Toole has performed the most dramatic overhaul of existing party orthodoxy in years.
“I think we are witnessing an attempt to bring about fundamental policy change in order to take advantage of a unique political moment,” the conservative writer Ben Woodfinden tells me. “I have said that there are the makings here of a winning brand of blue-collar conservatism, which may be the conservatism of the future.”
But it is also a foray into a new kind of progressivism that is not without risk.
Not everyone is convinced it’s a recipe for keeping the current conservative coalition in Canada together – that it could cause a rupture and produce a seismic cleavage not seen since the days of the Reform Party.
“If Erin O’Toole fails to win on these policies, he’s toast,” says Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “He’ll be done, and likely so will his policies. Then they will give someone else a chance – likely someone who is viewed as more traditionally conservative.”
And while that may be the case, the Conservative Party will be faced with the same dilemma Mr. O’Toole inherited when he assumed the leadership: You can’t win with the status quo. In politics, you change with the times or you die from a lack of gumption to do so.
Sometimes the boldness of change a new leader embarks on can produce wondrous new opportunities. Other times, it can lead to a pink slip.
While the type of change Erin O’Toole is bringing to the Conservatives seems consequential, even radical, such an undertaking is not unique.
“Canadian conservatism has been renewed and reinvented so many times that a Conservative leader today has to squint to discern a coherent tradition,” conservative political adviser Howard Anglin wrote recently in an essay for a German think tank.
In that same essay, Mr. Anglin, former chief of staff to Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, also said: “The first challenge that any Canadian conservative party must confront is that Canada is not a conservative country. This means that a majority of Canadians will not endorse the policies approved at a party convention.”
If the speech by David Cameron was a starting point for the transformation Mr. O’Toole is undertaking, the Canadian election of 2015 was another milestone. The Conservative vote was strong, even durable, but the Liberals still won a majority. How was that possible? The Tories had almost the same number of votes as they did in 2011, when they won a majority. Suddenly, they were on the losing end of things.
After some analytic probing, the answer became evident: Justin Trudeau didn’t persuade Conservatives or New Democrats to vote Liberal. He went out and found a brand new core of voters; he expanded his accessible voter universe. They were young, somewhat idealistic, and looking for someone who offered hope for the future, hope for the planet.
The Conservative vote had stagnated. By 2019, it had declined. That same year, Boris Johnson showed it was possible to mine a whole new group of voters: disaffected blue-collar workers who existed in the Labour Party bastions of northern England. In many respects, they were voters who had traits similar to the vein of unhappy nationalists Donald Trump identified in 2016.
Those plotting strategy for Erin O’Toole quickly realized this group existed north of the border too. They referred to them as the “left-behind voter,” alienated by the globalist orientation of Canada’s economic and trade policies. They were deeply patriotic and held what Mr. O’Toole’s backroom types called “neighbourhood values.”
“They are community-oriented and are put off by the woke liberalism of the centre-left parties,” says a senior CPC party source. “The NDP’s obsession with identity politics has turned this group off and given us a real opening.”
(The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they are not authorized to speak publicly about this issue).
Traditional canon held that the sweet spot for Conservative parties was fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Now, Mr. O’Toole and his team were discovering the exact opposite was true – at least for this group of voters. They looked for a more nationalist approach to the economy, with a muscular sense of patriotism and a strong set of working-class values.
With this federal election, you’re witnessing the Conservatives’ attempt to appeal to this group in real time. It has often been anything but subtle.
Mr. O’Toole’s language began to shift shortly after he won his party’s leadership in August, 2020. In a Labour Day message the following month, he referenced “multinational corporations” in a pejorative way. He gave speeches in front of business audiences lamenting the fact that too much power had been placed in the hands of corporate and financial elites at the expense of the common worker. It was jarring to many in the audience.
But it wasn’t until the Conservatives tabled their election platform this August that the full extent of their plan to steal the Boris Johnson playbook became evident. Measure after measure seemed designed to “level up” society, to close the gap between the lower working class and the middle class. It constituted a soft-edged populism for which the Conservatives had not been known.
In fact, the lingering impression of conservative parties is that they are the tool of powerful, vested interests. The particular group of voters the Conservatives were now targeting was also suspicious, which is why the party has gone overboard to convince them otherwise.
The Tories have plans to create a super Employment Insurance rate that temporarily provides more generous benefits during a recession. There’s a pledge to increase EI sickness benefits to 52 weeks for those suffering from a serious illness. This week, Mr. O’Toole was on the campaign trail to highlight his party’s plan to double the Canada Workers Benefit, which is the equivalent of a $1-an-hour raise. There are protections for gig-economy workers.
“Canadians are struggling, and for too long our most vulnerable workers have been left behind without the proper support to provide for themselves and their families,” Mr. O’Toole said. The statement had echoes of speeches by David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
The platform also contained a raft of workplace-democracy initiatives. One would require federally regulated employers with 1,000 or more employees to have worker representatives on their boards. There are also tax breaks for employers who sell shares to Employee Ownership Trusts. The Tories would amend the Canada Labour Code to give workers an advantage when trying to unionize inside companies with a history of anti-union activity.
In total, it’s a pro-worker manifesto that is so traditionally left-leaning, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent might have endorsed it. Maclean’s magazine looked at it all in a piece headlined “Erin O’Toole, socialist crusader.” Many inside the CPC were not amused; it might have been tongue-in-cheek, but it also hit a little too close to home.
The signal Mr. O’Toole is sending out, however, couldn’t be clearer: The type of Bay Street conservatism that many in the CPC feel most comfortable embracing isn’t going to win the party elections any more.
The big question, of course, is whether it’s having the desired effect. Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research Group Inc., which is tracking the electoral fortunes of all the parties, says the Tories have made gains with voters on all the major issues, from health care to the economy, while they’ve lost support from some populist conservatives who likely don’t feel comfortable with this version of the party.
However, Mr. Lyle said the Tories have yet to make inroads with the key demographic they’re focusing on: the strugglers, the left-behind voters. They’re a group notorious for being hard to reach and disengaged during election campaigns. The Conservatives have work to do here if they hope to see their strategy pay off in the same way it did for Boris Johnson.
Still, Mr. Lyle endorses the Conservatives’ approach.
“The reality is there are just fewer conservatives today,” he says. “Certainly fewer values-based conservatives. We’ve seen a decline in fiscal conservatism too, at least during COVID. The idea of a kinder, gentler capitalism – well O’Toole is right there. He didn’t surrender that to the Liberals or New Democrats.”
If there were conservatives, especially members of the CPC, who were caught off guard by their leader’s newfound embrace of the little guy and the sharp left turn he’s taken, you can hardly blame them. The Erin O’Toole who campaigned for his party’s leadership was a far more traditional (Take Back Canada!) conservative. He courted the social-conservative wing of the party. But behind the scenes, there was always a plan to change the direction the party would head in during an election if he became leader – the direction many believed offered the only path to victory.
Before he got there, however, he had to do a couple of important things.
During his leadership run, Mr. O’Toole made his views on gay rights and abortion plainly known, even as he chased social conservatives. He was pro-LBGTQ and pro-choice. When he won the leadership, this gave him permission to campaign on those views as well. There would be no repeat of the “stinking albatross” of social conservatism that hung from the neck of his predecessor, Andrew Scheer. A Conservative Party headed by Erin O’Toole would be in step with the times. Full stop.
“Erin was smart about it, though,” says Ken Boessenkool, former senior policy adviser to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and now a professor in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. “He knew he was going to disappoint some in the party with his stances, and he knew he had to give them something in return.”
Mr. O’Toole pledged to begin the Canada Child Benefit at seven months of pregnancy rather than at childbirth. He would add three days of paid bereavement leave for parents who experience a miscarriage. (Although his tax credit–based child-care plan has been deemed less generous than the Liberal scheme.)
“There are other things in his platform that are intended to send an important signal to social conservatives – I may not have been able to give you some things over here, but here are some other promises that show I’m pro-family,” Mr. Boessenkool says.
The other obstacle Mr. O’Toole needed to remove ahead of any election was around climate change, specifically the public perception that the party doesn’t take it seriously. Former Tory cabinet minister Lisa Raitt felt the sting of that very personally. She says she believes she lost her seat in the 2019 campaign because of it.
“The issue came up at almost every doorstep, that we were against the carbon tax,” Ms. Raitt recalled recently. “People extrapolated that to mean we didn’t care about the environment. It was a losing battle. It needed to be fixed.”
Ms. Raitt, Mr. Boessenkool and other influential conservatives all felt Mr. O’Toole needed to lance that boil if the party were to have any hope in the next election.
In April, Mr. O’Toole announced his party’s climate plan, which included a carbon tax – the same one he’d once promised to kill if he became prime minister. Now, he was not only reversing his position on pricing carbon but also promoting an environmental plan that was by far the most serious one ever presented by a Conservative party in Canada. It doesn’t go as far as the Liberal Party’s commitments to reducing greenhouse gases (or the NDP’s, for that matter), but it is likely enough to convince skeptical centrists the CPC is no longer the party of climate deniers.
The problem, however, is that not all conservatives agree with the move and are angry that Mr. O’Toole, for reasons of political expediency, reversed his position on the tax.
Former Tory cabinet minister and now Conservative candidate Michelle Rempel Garner once called a carbon tax a “job killer” and “bourgeois, elitist” public policy. In fact, “Kill the Tax” became a rallying cry for conservative politicians across the country. Another person who feels betrayed is Jenni Byrne, former chief of staff to Mr. Harper.
“No doubt Canadians are looking for a strong climate plan,” Ms. Byrne says. “But there’s no proof a carbon tax will actually reduce emissions. In fact, our emissions have gone up since Justin Trudeau came to power. So, I totally disagree with this decision.”
The very conscious move by Mr. O’Toole and his team to give conservative ideology a blue-collar makeover, to cast the party in a more open-minded, less hostile light, is not without other perils as well.
The Conservative leader has already been portrayed as a political chameleon, willing to change positions to suit his political needs. We’ve seen him morph from a strident, chip-on-the-shoulder conservative to the smiling, accessible version of Erin O’Toole we now see on the campaign trail.
Besides his flip-flop on the carbon tax, there was a policy reversal around conscience rights for health care workers. During his run for the leadership, Mr. O’Toole said he would protect their right not to perform procedures such as abortion or medical assistance in dying, or even offer referrals to others. On the federal campaign trail, however, he changed that position, saying doctors must refer patients to another physician if their conscience won’t allow them to help directly. On gun control, the Conservative leader also backed down from a promise to repeal a Liberal ban on 1,500 types of guns and assault weapons in the face of intense public criticism.
Not surprisingly, the Liberals have now seized on this emerging trend and have been hammering Mr. O’Toole hard over it in recent days.
“I’d probably do the same thing if I were the Liberals,” Ms. Byrne says. “They wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t think it was effective.”
There is unquestionably an “all things to all people” feel to the Conservative platform. Then again, elections are when politicians tell people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. On that front, Mr. O’Toole is no different. He’s trying to convince voters this is a different Conservative Party, one that’s more open and mainstream, and not populated by those with extreme views. He also must speak to those who believe the CPC has a hidden agenda, one that won’t become clear until it regains power.
While some might say Mr. O’Toole is refurbishing the compassionate conservatism that was the rage in the 2000s (and a dog whistle for the religious right), a more apt description might be pragmatic conservatism. It’s an issue-by-issue agenda that is still somewhat guided by conventional conservative pillars such as free trade, federalism, economic choice, nation building and immigration. The one exception would be fiscal responsibility.
If Mr. O’Toole’s veer to the left has upset many traditional conservatives, so has the profligate nature of his platform. The party released the cost of it on Wednesday, suggesting there would be $51.28-billion in new spending over five years – with deficits almost as large as the ones the Liberals are projecting over that same period. (The Liberal platform is projected to cost $78-billion.) Mr. O’Toole isn’t promising to balance the budget for at least a decade. The mind-boggling price tag of the Conservative plan has left some in the party wondering if the CPC is forfeiting the moral authority to talk credibly about debt and deficits.
“I know there are conservatives looking at that, Canadians looking at that, who are concerned about the high level of debt we’re racking up as a country,” Ms. Byrne says. “They know it’s threatening their pocket book, causing inflation and driving interest rates up.”
Rick Anderson, a principal with Earnscliffe and a one-time strategist for the Reform Party, says there was once an expression to describe conservatives with progressive tendencies: “Liberal Tory same old story.” But he also thinks social attitudes have changed on a range of issues, and conservatives have taken a long time to catch up to them.
To that extent, Mr. O’Toole’s policy transformation is an effort to address this lag. “I think what he’s doing is making himself acceptable to mainstream voters in Canada,” Mr. Anderson says. “I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing.”
He says anyone who has won their party’s leadership and gone on to become prime minister have all fundamentally changed the party they took over. It was true of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. It was true of Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper. It was true of Justin Trudeau as well. “If Erin O’Toole succeeds in becoming prime minister,” Mr. Anderson says, “it will be because he succeeded in doing that too.”
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