Erin O’Toole moved on two fronts this week to convince middle-class suburban voters in Ontario and British Columbia that his Conservative Party offers a credible alternative to the Liberals. The question is whether his own party will follow him.
Reaction to the Tories’ new framework for fighting global warming has been largely positive among environmental analysts. “For the first time in its history, the Conservative Party of Canada has released a real climate plan,” concluded Clean Energy Canada, a think tank.
“Welcome to the table,” tweeted Andrew Leach, an economist specializing in the environment and energy at the University of Alberta. “This is such an important shift with some real policy meat.”
Polls show suburban middle-class voters, the largest component of the Canadian electorate, place a high value on fighting climate change. The Tory plan now gives them one less reason not to vote Conservative.
Earlier in the week, Conservative finance critic Ed Fast sent a letter to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland about the April 19 budget. The Conservatives want to see concrete measures to speed economic recovery, while bringing down spending in a responsible fashion. But the tone mattered as much as the substance.
“As we have since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, we will continue to work co-operatively with you to deliver the programs required to properly respond to the damage being inflicted by the pandemic,” he wrote.
Mr. O’Toole shifted Mr. Fast into the role of finance critic in February, replacing Pierre Poilievre. Mr. O’Toole was clearly signalling that Mr. Fast – who, as trade minister in Stephen Harper’s government, negotiated the free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union – was a more plausible candidate for finance minister. Mr. Poilievre is an effective political pit bull, but a pit bull nonetheless.
Suburban voters – well, all voters – are concerned about economic recovery after the pandemic. On these two vital fronts, Mr. O’Toole has shifted his party toward the centre. But then there is Cathay Wagantall.
The House spent part of Wednesday debating C-233, a private member’s bill put forward by Ms. Wagantall that would criminalize sex-selective abortion.
The legislation, she told the House, ”would create protections for unborn baby girls whose lives are ended simply because they are girls.”
The Liberals, of course, were all over the bill. “I am disappointed, as a woman in this country in this day and age, to be once again faced with Conservatives attempting to take away long-fought, long-established women’s rights,” said Jennifer O’Connell, parliamentary secretary for health.
The bill has no hope of passage. Mr. O’Toole said he would be voting against it. But Liberals will use C-233 as evidence of a Conservative hidden agenda. That doesn’t bother Ms. Wagantall.
“Of course we have varying views within our party,” she said in an interview. “That’s something I love about the Conservative Party of Canada, that we do represent an incredible breadth of perspectives of Canadians.”
When we talked Thursday evening, Ms. Wagantall was still analyzing the new Conservative climate plan.
“There are parts of it that are disconcerting,” she said, adding that the issue may be one of communication. But the truth is the Conservative plan puts a price on carbon, which Conservatives typically used to oppose.
I asked Ms. Wagantall whether Mr. O’Toole had her full confidence as leader.
“Yes. He’s my leader. He is my leader,” she replied. One suspects Mr. O’Toole may have a harder time selling his climate-change program to his back bench than to the public.
Ms. Wagantall represents Yorkton-Melville, a largely rural Saskatchewan riding. She took 76 per cent of the vote in the 2019 election. She is not a member of the shadow cabinet. So whether the Conservatives form government or remain in opposition after the next election won’t materially change her role as a member of Parliament.
She belongs to the wing of the party that defeated a motion at the Conservative policy convention recognizing the importance of combatting climate change. To win the next election, the party needs to hold on to these voters, who don’t care much about climate change, while winning over suburban middle-class voters in Ontario and B.C., who do.
Erin O’Toole is working hard to find the right balance. That doesn’t mean he’ll succeed.
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