A couple of days ago, a viral video circulated where the Conservative Party leader, Erin O’Toole, promised to move Justin Trudeau’s office to a portable toilet, all the while giggling. Many politicians and commentators denounced O’Toole’s behaviour in the video, which dated back from June 2020, as unprofessional and unsuited for someone trying to become Prime Minister of Canada.
This video is part of the latest issues plaguing the new leader of a party that won the popular vote in the last federal election and forms the Official Opposition against a minority government in the House of Commons. From tensions between different factions of the party to mixed feelings amongst Canadian voters, the situation may look even direr for the Conservatives than what they faced in 2019.
When Andrew Scheer resigned as leader of the Conservative Party back in December 2019, four official candidates were running to replace him. Each candidate knew that they had the immense responsibility of unifying all party factions and reaching out to broader Canadian voters after winning the leadership election.
Erin O’Toole, the MP for Durham, Ontario, won the leadership election. The former Air Force Captain defeated former deputy Conservative leader Peter MacKay by 57% to 43% on the last ballot. O’Toole initially campaigned on being a “true blue Conservative” who would reduce the deficit, eliminate funding for the CBC, repeal the carbon tax, support pipeline constructions and being “tough on China.” However, what differentiates O’Toole from his predecessors was his pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ rights stances, earning him the label of a moderate Conservative.
When O’Toole won the race on August 24, there was hope amongst inner-party circles that their new leader’s socially progressive stances and background as a Greater Toronto Area-based MP will carry the Conservatives to the finish line. However, it has not been easy sailing for the Tories.
Tensions with the social conservatives
As previously mentioned, due to Erin O’Toole’s social progressive stances, the new Conservative leader has been reputed as a moderate Conservative, alongside his leadership rival Peter MacKay. Many political pundits have noted that if O’Toole did not campaign on his “true blue Conservative” agenda, social conservative voters might not have backed O’Toole as their second or third choice. A few months down the road, O’Toole’s may have already alienated the party’s social conservative wing, especially following Derek Sloan’s ouster.
Derek Sloan was amongst the four candidates who ran to replace Andrew Scheer as the Conservative Party leader. Unlike Erin O’Toole, the MP for Hastings—Lennox-Addington ran on a hard-right populist and social conservative campaign. During that time, Sloan sparked massive outrage when he questioned whether the Chief Medical Officer in Canada, Theresa Tam, was “working for Canada or working for China.” His comment was widely seen as anti-Chinese racism since Tam was born in Hong Kong. Even though Sloan stated that he never meant to question Tam’s loyalty, it did not stop calls for Sloan to be expelled from the party. Eventually, Sloan got ejected from the caucus when O’Toole took over party leadership for receiving a donation from white nationalist Paul Fromm.
However, many politicians and pundits have seen the motive behind Sloan’s expulsion as “dubious grounds.” Fromm used a pseudonym to send the donation, which Sloan returned upon learning of the donation’s origin. Sloan’s ejection from caucus had worried social conservative voters, as the now-Independent MP was known for voting against banning conversion therapy and sponsoring anti-vaccine petitions. Some social conservative voters wonder if they still have a home in the Conservative Party under Erin O’Toole.
“My constituents don’t know what he stands for” – Anonymous Conservative MP.
Social conservatives are not the only ones who are dissatisfied with Erin O’Toole’s leadership. According to the National Post, an increasing number of MPs in the Conservative Party are getting wary of their leader.
For some, O’Toole ditched the “true blue Conservative” persona and became a centrist leader. One Conservative MP even commented on how his “constituents don’t know what he stands for.”
Many are worried that Erin O’Toole has abandoned core conservative values and policies to appeal to voters in Ontario and Quebec, especially when it comes to the environment.
Since taking over the reins, O’Toole promised that a Conservative government under him would deliver a robust climate plan that will reach the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. O’Toole’s yet-to-be-revealed environment plan is worrying MPs that their leader will endorse the federal carbon tax. Let us remind ourselves that repealing the carbon tax was one of the main issues that the Conservatives campaigned on last federal election. Embracing the carbon tax would come as a slap to the face for many Conservative politicians, voters and supporters across the country.
Regardless of whether or not O’Toole will endorse a carbon tax, party infighting has never been a good sign for any political party, especially when it plans on defeating an incumbent minority government. In the 2004 federal election, one of the many reasons why the Liberal government of Paul Martin was reduced from a majority to a minority government was because of party infighting between different factions of inside the Liberal caucus.
In this case, if O’Toole does not reconcile fast with his skeptical MPs, the Conservatives may have to kiss their shot at winning an election goodbye.
Public opinion and relations
The bad news for Erin O’Toole does not end here. As Leader of the Opposition, O’Toole needs to make the case as to why he is best suited to lead this country, form a government and become Prime Minister. However, according to the latest Angus Reid poll, the Canadian electorate may have already made their mind on what they think of the new Conservative leader.
According to the Angus Reid Institute, 51% of Canadians have a negative view of Erin O’Toole, compared to 29% who have a favourable view. It gives O’Toole a net favourability of -22%, making him one of Canada’s least popular politicians and the least popular federal party leader.
According to the latest Léger poll, the Liberals lead voter intention with 35% compared to 28% for the Conservatives. To add insult to injury, the NDP were only trailing the Conservatives by just 5%. If this poll serves right, not only the Tories need to do more if they are to win, they are in grave peril of getting overshadowed by another party, like the NDP.
It is clear that Erin O’Toole and his Tories need a better strategy to convince Canadian politicians as to why he could do a better job than Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government. According to Toronto Sun columnist and former Liberal political advisor Warren Kinsella, Erin O’Toole had the chance to prove himself to be more competent than the Trudeau government. Kinsella, a vocal critic of Prime Minister Trudeau, cited how O’Toole can press on the government for Canada’s slow vaccine rollouts instead of “making toilet videos,” referring to O’Toole’s toilet video controversy. Kinsella suggested that Erin O’Toole shake up his staff, just like former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper did before being elected to office. “Politics is a blood sport, and [he] need[s] to spill some – of [his] own people,” he added.
“Politics is a blood sport, and [Erin O’Toole] need[s] to spill some – of [his] own people” – Warren Kinsella.
Overall, all those issues put Erin O’Toole and the Conservative Party in a hard spot. Issues that O’Toole needs to address and work on if he wants to become the 24th Prime Minister of Canada. Otherwise, if the government decides to call a snap election, the Conservative Party might be the dreadnought that sunk before the battle has even begun.
By Jacques Wang