Erin O’Toole failed to dominate the Conservative policy convention that wrapped up Saturday. But at least he survived it, with a path to victory in the next federal election still open.
But that path is narrow and treacherous and steep, strewn with boulders and prone to mudslides. And running beside the path, the abyss.
Party organizers and executives were able to prevent efforts by anti-abortion activists to dominate the convention, though delegates made mischief by voting down a motion that “recognizes that climate change is real” and “the Conservative Party is willing to act.”
Mr. O’Toole sought to limit the damage at Saturday’s question-and-answer session. “The debate is over,” he declared. “Climate change is real, and we will have a serious and comprehensive plan on climate change to reduce emissions in the next election.”
For the path to electoral victory to remain open, the Conservatives need to release a credible climate-change policy well before the next election, ignoring any objections from the base. Otherwise, suburban Ontario is lost to them. Narrow path. Treacherous path.
Mr. O’Toole also used the convention to introduce a new Conservative priority: expanding support for mental-health programs. “There isn’t a Canadian family that hasn’t been impacted by mental-health challenges during this pandemic,” he said Saturday, “my own included.” The Conservatives’ proposed nationwide three-digit suicide prevention hotline – 988 – is a great idea that is already under way in the United States.
In both Friday’s speech and Saturday’s Q&A, Mr. O’Toole condemned Liberal corruption – an overstatement, though Liberal ethical lapses are many, and some severe – and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reluctance to confront Chinese aggression and human-rights abuses, which is no overstatement at all.
And he pounded the Conservative message of sound economic management in place of the ambitious commitments we are all expecting in this spring’s Liberal budget, more than two years in the making.
And this is where Mr. O’Toole’s path to victory becomes obscured by fog.
At the end of the Second World War, big government promised to prevent any return to the depression of the 1930s. Big government had won the war; now, it would win the peace. Ottawa embarked on a decades-long expansion of social programs – free education, free health care, welfare, pensions – and infrastructure: the St. Lawrence Seaway; a national network of airports; freeways and transit and hydro and sewers. The consensus in favour of activist government lasted until stagflation arrived in the 1970s.
The trauma of the pandemic has mobilized governments across Canada in ways not seen since the war: oppressive lockdowns and other limits to personal freedom on the one side; massive economic support for stricken workers and businesses on the other.
As the vaccines slowly begin to lift the siege, what do Canadians want next? The political class in Central Canada is convinced the answer lies in a generation-defining expansion of green and wireless infrastructure along with enhanced social supports, with little concern for deficits. The postwar expansion, redux.
If that is truly what the public wants – and it may well be – then the best the Conservatives can hope for is to limit their losses in the next election and wait for disenchantment to set it. Leadership and policies are irrelevant. Conservatism as we understand it today will be outside the consensus, and will remain outside for years to come.
But maybe the public wants something else. Many Canadians, while expecting continued economic support until the economy fully reopens, may not be eager for endless, massive deficit spending. They may not trust the Liberals, whose “evidence-based” policies always seem to favour downtowns over suburbs, the public sector over the private sector, their friends over the rest of us. Conservatives remain popular at the provincial level. Why should things be so different federally?
If that is true, then by laying out a program that offers a credible (the climate-change policy), compassionate (the mental-health priority), but fiscally responsible (gradual deficit reduction) alternative to Liberal grand schemes, the Conservatives might win over enough worried suburban middle-class voters to form a government.
That is Mr. O’Toole’s path: the slippery, twisting one, the one beside the cliff, with the rocks below.
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