A helicopter pilot who went back to school for corporate law while competing in triathlons in his spare time. Erin O’Toole’s top-line bio distinguishes him sharply from his predecessors at the helm of the Conservative party of Canada. By comparison, those guys seem like hairless mole rats tunnelling through a maze of make-work projects for right-wing nerds.

In their pre-leadership lives, Stephen Harper and Andrew Scheer remained relatively ensconced in the world of corporate-funded think tanks, limiting their charisma and relatability. Erin O’Toole’s relative charisma, on the other hand, can come as a bit of a shock, in the same way that ordinary daylight is blinding when you’ve emerged from a windowless shack. 

Perhaps more importantly, O’Toole has demonstrated considerable political versatility. 

The danger for Conservatives was that O’Toole would be perceived by voters as leading a goblin army of anti-gay and anti-trans climate deniers, emerged fully formed from the tar pits of northern Alberta. Unlike Harper, who placated social conservatives but aimed for a public image of boring and plodding but competent leadership, O’Toole took an approach of scattering shiny flecks of progressive policy in the Conservative platform among the usual fare, while keeping the social conservative engine running.

Will he successfully execute the critical maneuver of appeasing his base while appearing to be reasonable and moderate? Polls say yes—so far. Recent upward shifts in O’Toole’s approval ratings and a sharp rise in the statistical chances of Canada electing a Conservative minority—or even majority—on September 20 suggest that O’Toole could pull it off.

It might appear that he is defying his riled-up Conservative base by making progressive noises on some policies like abortion, safe injection sites and a carbon tax. But in the spring, when few voters were paying attention, O’Toole made space—at his party’s policy convention, for example—for that ferment of highly motivated climate deniers and social conservatives that he now pretends to eschew.

The right wing dad vibe

O’Toole has always had the raw materials of an effective communicator, but his ability to navigate the contradictions of the party’s base comes from hard-won lessons.

A friend who encountered O’Toole in parliamentary committees several years ago described him to me as “sharp” and “no policy lightweight.” 

“He has a relatable everyday plainspoken dad thing about him; there isn’t a sliver of pomp or pretentiousness in his demeanor,” he said. “I think we underestimate his ability to connect with working class Canadians (especially those tired of Trudeau) at our peril.”

When he first ran for party leader in 2017, O’Toole’s platform reflected his own business conservative sensibilities: corporate subsidies, military spending and tough-on-crime measures. Then Andrew Scheer coasted to victory with support from intensely mobilized social conservatives, with O’Toole finishing a very distant third.

In 2020, another leadership race was called, and O’Toole ran a very different campaign. He hired an Ontario Proud co-founder to lead his communications team and actively courted the social conservative wing. 

It worked. Leslyn Lewis, who put opposition to a ban on conversion therapy and support for restrictions on abortion at the core of her campaign, attracted the votes of thousands of hard core social conservatives. (Lewis also called climate concerns “overblown.”) After she was eliminated on the third ballot (after winning a plurality of votes on the second), her supporters moved overwhelmingly to O’Toole over early favourite Peter Mackay.

O’Toole owes his victory to that social conservative bloc. Not only has he not forgotten this, but their support is part of his long term plan.

In the year that followed, O’Toole put Lewis at the head of the Conservative policy convention—the largest ever for the party. With Lewis presiding, the party’s grassroots members promptly voted down a motion to declare that ”climate change is real.” 

That set up O’Toole for a season’s worth of taunting from Liberal MPs, but he had built trust with the base which any conservative leader relies on to drive turnout at the polls and tilt the national agenda to the right. 

Stephen Harper speaks at the Party’s 2021 virtual policy convention.

Walking the path of Harper

While differing in style, O’Toole’s methods echo the calculations made by Stephen Harper in the early 2000s.

As Prime Minister, Harper delivered key concessions to social conservatives. He promised, and delivered, a free vote on banning abortion, for example. The vote didn’t pass, and media commentators portrayed it as a savvy move to placate supporters without giving them anything substantial. 

But it was quite a bit more than that. The free vote legitimized the anti-abortion cause and energized a new wave of assaults on reproductive rights. International aid for organizations working in reproductive health, for example, was severely curtailed and infused with anti-abortion restrictions, while New Brunswick effectively eliminated in-province access to abortion with the closure of the Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton.

Social conservatism goes far beyond its core issues. The network of activists and organizations working to restrict access to abortion and gay and trans rights are deployed on behalf of corporate interests, and cross-pollinate with xenophobic and pro-industry groups. But while yellow vests, United We Roll and the anti-vax/anti-mask movement may be short-lived phenomena, social conservatism is the persistent core of the reactionary network, working on a timeline of decades, not years.

While it’s impossible to know for sure what O’Toole would do as Prime Minister, he has followed a similar path to Harper. He refused to whip his caucus to vote against anti-abortion legislation, creating an opportunity for the social conserative base to put pressure on every Conservative MP and score mini-victories.

The more power he gains, the more O’Toole will be likely to dole out additional concessions.

Regular anti-abortion rallies have attracted thousands to Ottawa.

Controlling the discussion—and making sure it’s about Conservatives

In late August, O’Toole announced that large companies with over 1000 employees or $100 million in annual revenues would be required to have worker representatives on their boards. A debate immediately ensued about whether it was actually a progressive measure (a similar measure was, in any case, one of Bernie Sanders’ key planks). 

Progressive rebuttals—calling it a token change and highlighting Conservative hostility to workers—followed, but the work had been done. Though unlikely to ever be legislated, the real point of the proposal, along with many others like it, was to change the narrative at the moment when people outside of a politically-focused minority were finally paying attention. 

Similarly-oriented planks include “land-based [addiction] treatment programs developed and managed by Indigenous communities,” funding for mental health care, increasing housing supply and dense development around public transit hubs, and a slew of other minor climate measures.

All of these policies are arrayed around a core of increased military spending and aggressive expansion of tar sands extraction. If the Conservatives come to power, we’ll see (by their own account) criminalization of dissent, crackdowns on Indigenous protests, and big budgets for police and military—that too is in their platform.

But nothing requires the media to cover policy proportionally to its actual implications. When seemingly progressive policy trinkets get more attention than the big ticket items like military spending, crackdowns on dissent and massive transfers of wealth to extractive industries, that’s what creates the loophole that could put a Conservative government into place.

Ceding the rural terrain to corporate propaganda bubbles

Other, long-term conditions contribute to Canada’s vulnerability to sly Conservative communications tactics.The Conservative grip on rural areas, for example, is largely unchallenged. Unions, NGOs, the NDP and progressive activists of any kind are largely absent in these areas, ceding the terrain to hyper-individualist, pro-corporate ideology. 

This means that areas proportionally over-represented in Parliament (rural ridings have few voters, on the whole) often exist in a bubble of unreality. Resource corporations set the terms of discussion, and people in these areas rarely encounter organizers promoting other forms of economic development. 

Rural areas and extraction-based regional economies are, as a result, a stable launchpad for Conservative attacks on the country’s urban and progressive-leaning majority. And those attacks rely on widespread disengagement to be effective.

The hollowing out of New Democratic Party policy conventions and local associations of any substantial debate—in favour of celebrating MPs and leaders—means the political sphere is deprived of tens of thousands of people actually familiar with progressive policy and able to communicate the worldview that drives them. Because NDP riding associations (at least in the eyes of the party) only exist to support campaigns, political education at a grassroots level is at minimal levels. 

O’Toole has a credible shot at gaining a minority government—and maybe even a majority—in September. If that happens, the response from progressives will likely be panicked and short-term. Liberals will appeal to “strategic voting” which is only actually strategic if the NDP has no chance of winning, something that isn’t the case in urban ridings where the contest is between NDP and Liberals.The NDP may in some cases downplay or ignore the threat in the hope of picking up more seats.

To keep that from happening, progressives will have to learn the mechanisms of O’Toole’s strategy and tactics, and combat it with clear messages based on a coherent economic vision.

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