Erin O’Toole did something unusual on Wednesday: He looked at a reporter asking him a question.
You might not have noticed it on TV, but usually the Conservative Leader doesn’t do that. He pretends to take notes on his podium, then stares straight ahead and doesn’t show his profile to the cameras.
So it must have been a little lapse in Mr. O’Toole’s steely discipline when he turned his head towards a reporter posing a question at his press conference in Saguenay, Que.
Presumably, Mr. O’Toole’s media trainers tell him to look straight at the camera, because it looks better on TV. In person, the resolute unwillingness to look at his questioner seems a little odd. The day before, in Russell, Ont., he never looked over to the journalists about six metres to his left.
When a reporter at the Russell appearance asked why Mr. O’Toole rarely mentions local candidates, the Tory Leader gave a shout-out to Glengarry-Prescott-Russell Conservative candidate Susan McArthur, standing behind him. He nodded slightly to the side without actually looking at her. Don’t turn your back to the cameras.
That’s just part of the way Mr. O’Toole’s campaign works. He has spent a big chunk of the past month speaking from a soundstage at the Westin hotel in Ottawa, but location is not what matters. When he leaves those confines, his campaign is just as prepackaged.
Mr. O’Toole is running to be a prefab prime minister. Never before has a real contender for the role been so heavily scripted from beginning to end.
If that seems hard to believe, it should. There is a lot of fakery in election campaigns.
Surely, Justin Trudeau’s circuitous talking points and rehearsed responses can’t be outdone? Maybe you think former prime minister Stephen Harper’s famed penchant for control ensured he was more prepackaged? Nope.
Mr. Trudeau repeats his stock phrases so often that he has probably noticed journalists’ eyes rolling back in their heads, but he nevertheless occasionally fields an off-the-beaten-path query, or lets loose a glib remark. Mr. Harper didn’t like taking questions, but had little trouble fielding them, and he answered them extensively in opposition. On one occasion in the 2005-06 campaign that brought him to power, he called a reporter to add to an answer he had just given in a press conference.
Mr. O’Toole won’t be doing those things in this campaign. The Conservatives might plan surprises, but he won’t react to them. Not until the script is redrafted.
On the first day of the campaign, Mr. O’Toole didn’t have strong answers about vaccinations, so his campaign put out a statement at 10 p.m. that night. He stumbled over questions about conscience rights for anti-abortion health workers and a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons, so he changed his position the next day, or a few days later.
In Russell, the first question was about whether Mr. O’Toole would pay faith-based organizations to achieve his promise to encourage them to provide long-term care. He didn’t address it. He didn’t answer the next question about how much child-care money Quebec will receive when he cancels federal-provincial child-care agreements. Or the next.
His go-to in press conferences is to hold up his prop – a copy of his campaign platform – and say he has a plan.
It is actually impressive discipline. And it takes preparation to stick to a script and mould it to every question. Those are two qualities that Mr. O’Toole’s friends and former colleagues associate with the former lawyer and Canadian Forces helicopter navigator. He prepares, and he can stick to the mission.
The shame is, he is so devoted to the task that he won’t show Canadians even a smidge of what Erin O’Toole is like, or would be like as prime minister. Although maybe we can glean something from his somewhat ruthless adherence to tactics.
If you watch videos from Mr. O’Toole’s 2020 Conservative leadership campaign, he looks like a different person. He was more aggressive, speaking out against cancel culture, building a meme-heavy campaign that packed gun-club members into empty riding associations, promising True Blue conservativism. On Wednesday, he said he leads a different Conservative Party – one that is progressive and inclusive.
The Liberals, in these last days of the election campaign, will be trying to convince voters that Mr. O’Toole is the more right-wing version of himself, rather than the newer one. The evidence always suggested that he wasn’t really the guy from the leadership campaign, not completely. But what we know about the Erin O’Toole in this election campaign is only what is in the script.
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