Newly elected Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole spent the first two days of his leadership declaring his party’s openness and shaking off any notion that he might be a social conservative: He is pro-choice and supports gay marriage.
Mr. O’Toole held his first news conference as Conservative Leader on Tuesday where he spoke again about welcoming people to his party. He repeated part of his victory speech, delivered around 1 a.m. Monday, saying that people from any race or creed, LGBTQ or straight, Indigenous or new to Canada, and from any faith “have a home” in the Conservative Party. However, Mr. O’Toole still faced questions about social conservatives and abortion at his news conference.
“I have a clear track record on standing up for human rights whether it’s women, whether it’s the LGBT community. I won the leadership of the Conservative Party as a pro-choice Conservative MP, one that won with a strong mandate. That’s how I’m going to lead as the Leader of the Opposition and that’s how I will be as Prime Minister,” Mr. O’Toole told reporters. During the previous federal election, then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said he was personally against abortion, after dodging the question for weeks.
Mr. O’Toole won the leadership in the third round of balloting after securing the ranked-ballot votes of many supporters of Leslyn Lewis, a Toronto lawyer and social conservative who placed third in the race. Former cabinet minister Peter MacKay placed second and Conservative MP Derek Sloan, also a social conservative, was fourth.
Conservative strategist Kate Harrison, the vice-president of Summa Strategies and a former political staffer, said Tuesday that Mr. O’Toole’s initial remarks as leader have been a deliberate attempt to shift the tone of how Conservatives may be perceived by the broader public.
“I think that he wants Canadians to know that there is a Conservative alternative and a Conservative vision that doesn’t leave people out in the cold, particularly at a time when people need help and support, but that this Conservative Party under his leadership would be one that would be a bit more forward thinking, a bit more visionary in its plan and trying to be more inclusive,” she said.
When asked if he felt he owed social conservatives anything because he gained some of their support, Mr. O’Toole said he will “treat all of our members with respect” and repeated that he was elected as a pro-choice MP.
Jack Fonseca, political operations director for Campaign Life Coalition, said his organization knew where Mr. O’Toole stood on abortion and so it recommended its supporters rank Ms. Lewis and Mr. Sloan as their top choices, and avoid ranking Mr. O’Toole or Mr. MacKay at all. However, he said, Mr. O’Toole would not have won without the support of social conservatives, adding he will also need their support to win the federal election.
“I think he would be very foolish, especially two days after seeing the influence and strength of the social conservatives that are his natural base, to offer them nothing. … They need something to chew on,” Mr. Fonseca said.
Mr. O’Toole skirted a question about whether his leadership rival Mr. Sloan should be expelled from caucus for comments he made during the leadership race.
In a statement on Tuesday, Liberal MP Pam Damoff urged Mr. O’Toole to remove Mr. Sloan from the Conservative caucus. “Mr. O’Toole has an important decision to make, which will help Canadians understand his vision for the future of our country: He can stand up for the rights of all Canadians, or he can condone racism, misogyny and bigotry within his own caucus,” Ms. Damoff said.
In April, Mr. Sloan refused to apologize after questioning Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam’s loyalty to the country, asking in a Facebook video: “Does she work for Canada or for China?” He later said his comments were “deliberately” mischaracterized by the Liberals.
Mr. O’Toole said there’s always pressure and contrasting ideas in leadership campaigns but now the race is over.
“I received a clear mandate and I’m very excited to meet with my caucus and talk with all of them about uniting, and going forward together, and I’ll be doing that in the coming days and weeks,” he said.
Mr. O’Toole also laid out some of his priorities, saying that as prime minister he would lead a government that rebuilds the economy and creates long-term jobs with ambitious projects. He said he will propose programs that will make it easier for people to “get ahead” and also spoke about national unity and the need to support the resources sector to alleviate the feeling of alienation in Western Canada.
He also said that his party will be tough on China: “We will trade freely with free nations and not spend our time chasing trade deals with predatory countries like Communist China.”
The new leader could find himself running to become prime minister in a matter of months – if not weeks. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week requested a prorogation of Parliament until late September. When it returns a Throne Speech will trigger a confidence vote, and, depending on the outcome, possibly a general election.
Mr. O’Toole would not say how he intends to vote on the Throne Speech, saying it will be discussed in the future. However, he said because of that, he may soon ask Canadians for the chance to serve as prime minister “so we can get this country back on track.”
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