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Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole speaks at a press conference in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2021.

David Kawai/The Canadian Press

It is no surprise to see that Erin O’Toole has embraced the rich Canadian tradition of party democracy by bluntly disregarding the explicit will of the Conservative grassroots.

In one sense, it would be appropriate to scold the Conservative Leader for disregarding the delegates who voted to reject a resolution declaring climate change is real, and for instead insisting he will draw up his own climate policy. But that’s like the Casablanca police being shocked that there is gambling going on at Rick’s.

When Mr. O’Toole blustered, “I’m the leader, I’m in charge,” it was entirely in keeping with Canadian political tradition.

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In 2005, then-prime minister Paul Martin ignored Liberal policy resolutions calling for the legalization of prostitution and marijuana. In 2014, the leader of the third party, Justin Trudeau, broke his promise to allow open nominations by insisting Christine Innes not run against star candidates Chrystia Freeland and Bill Morneau – and disqualified her when she sought to defy the boss. The list of examples is long.

And frankly, there usually isn’t much of a price to be paid. A leader’s disregard for grassroots policy choices or party democratic processes typically gets forgotten by everyone except the embittered few.

But this time, Mr. O’Toole managed to shoot himself in the foot many times along the way.

One obvious cause of Mr. O’Toole’s problems was that he ran for the leadership as a true-blue conservative, campaigning against cancel culture and wooing social conservatives, and once he won, he sounded socially liberal and strongly pro-choice and cancelled so-con former leadership candidate Derek Sloan right out of the Conservative caucus.

But it wasn’t just that. Some Conservatives didn’t like Mr. O’Toole’s cheering for unions. Others suspected the leadership candidate who promised to scrap the carbon tax might now propose one of his own. His own party wasn’t confident he stood for what he said.

To be fair, it isn’t easy to manage the Conservative Party’s factions from the opposition benches. But that’s Mr. O’Toole’s job as leader. And it was obviously an embarrassing failure to declare the debate on climate change over on Friday only to find out later that day that party delegates said the opposite in a vote.

Mr. O’Toole can overrule them now. But it has already cast doubt on what he stands for. On climate change, and other things.

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“The point is, Conservatives say that climate change does not exist, and the Liberals do nothing about it while pretending to do something about it,” Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Tuesday.

You can argue about that line, but when Mr. O’Toole does put out a climate-change plan, you can expect to hear Mr. Blanchet say the Conservatives are pretending to do something about something they don’t believe in. You might hear Liberals say it’s hard to guess if Mr. O’Toole will stick to any of it, once he’s elected.

But it’s not just about climate change. It’s about Mr. O’Toole’s character, and his floating political identity.

The leader’s tussle with his party highlighted the difference between the Erin O’Toole who wooed the party and the one wooing voters. It won’t take that much to point out that he has already had two different political agendas, and his party may have a third. It makes it easy for opponents to spread the perception that he will say anything to get elected, and do what he wants once he is there. That is supposed to be Mr. Trudeau’s weakness. Now Mr. O’Toole gets to share it.

Unless, that is, the new take-charge Erin O’Toole really is able to establish who he is, and what he stands for – quickly. In seven months as leader so far, he hasn’t been willing to offer many details. He doesn’t have that much more time. If there isn’t a spring election, there probably will be one in the fall.

And one thing is pretty clear now: Mr. O’Toole is not going to get a second chance.

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It is hard enough for a modern party leader to stay on if they lose an election. But this squabbling with his own party was pretty widespread, and the bitterness will still be there in a few months. There is only one thing that will make the Conservative Party into Erin O’Toole’s party: victory. He’s got one shot. And it just got harder.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated delegates to the party’s policy convention voted in a climate resolution Saturday. In fact, the vote took place Friday, and results were released late that night.



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