Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives pretend they’re moderate. They’re not.

Election 2021 | Gregory Beatty | Sept. 9, 2021

There’s a lot of volatility in politics these days so who knows what the election campaign landscape will look like when this mag hits the streets Sept. 9.

But early on, the big story was a surprising surge in popularity for the Conservatives.

Backlash against the Liberals for calling the election in the first place was probably part of it, but the party’s main asset, shockingly, was its leader: Erin O’Toole.

In March, O’Toole presided over a rocky party convention where he tried to sell delegates on softening some hardline policies to attract support in seat-heavy, urban Ontario, B.C. and Quebec. Many delegates pushed back hard, but with an early slew of progressive campaign promises including (gasp!) a climate plan [see sidebar], O’Toole seemed intent on doing his best Red Tory impersonation.

It’s a savvy strategy, says Simon Enoch, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Saskatchewan director.

That said, O’Toole has had help.

“With PostMedia, he’s got a tremendous media infrastructure in his corner publicizing the more moderate policies, such as putting workers on corporate boards, while not mentioning more conservative policies — like rescinding our climate commitments and jettisoning the Liberals $10 a day daycare plan,” says Enoch. “That way, he hopes to attract some soft Liberal support.”

It probably helps that O’Toole is from Ontario. In big city eyes, he doesn’t have the “redneck” taint of his western predecessors Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper (plus too many MPs to mention).

“Where O’Toole’s been successful is he’s taken the fear out of supporting the Conservatives,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith. “The Liberals could easily paint Scheer and Harper as scary, and quite frankly, there were lots of things that were scary.

“Scheer has social conservative leanings,” says Smith. “He would try to lie about it. But everybody saw through that. And Harper was ruthless, and through the minority years Canadians came to understand that. But O’Toole’s taken some of that fear out.”

While running as a moderate Conservative might sound like a winning strategy, there’s one big problem, says Smith.

“The problem is that underneath the leader is the same bunch of people — many from the Harper years. O’Toole is having to walk a fine line, because during the leadership race he catered to the party’s social conservative and far-right elements. Then, as leader, he immediately shunned them. Who is the real O’Toole?”

Quiet Start

Labour Day traditionally marks the end of summer. It could signal a change in tone in the campaign too, but for Smith, the first two weeks were pretty lacklustre.

“It’s amazing how little this election has been about anything,” he says. “There’s been almost no talk about Covid and how governments have responded. O’Toole is talking about a recovery plan as if the pandemic is over. It’s clearly not so his plan is ridiculous. It’s all about shovelling billions into the pockets of private businesses in the hope they’ll hire.”

Smith says another glaring absence is Indigenous rights and reconciliation.

“It’s too bad because what was happening in July seemed like a moment,” says Smith. “Notwithstanding the decade of research done by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, it wasn’t moving the needle in the same way as discovering thousands of unmarked children’s graves. Unfortunately, the page seems to have been turned on that.”

With the pandemic, it’s fair say that governments of every stripe have had their struggles. But by any objective measure (i.e., statistics), conservative governments have performed far worse. That’s true in Canada, the United States, and generally world-wide.

Science denial, fundamentalist religion, populist politics, putting money before people, lack of courage to make tough decisions… there are lots of reasons for conservative politicians’ failures. If the fourth wave continues to pick up steam, will voters trust the Conservatives to manage the pandemic?

 “If I was the Liberal campaign manager, I’d step on the gas with CERB and other supports that were provided and say, ‘That’s what we did during the pandemic,’” says Smith. “‘We saved the economy. We saved workers’ jobs.’”

Childcare is another issue that looms large. Over the past year, the Liberals have signed agreements with eight provinces (Alberta and Ontario are the holdouts) to establish subsidized $10 a day childcare.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have offered a tax credit to backfill some of the cost — which in major cities, can be several thousand dollars a month.

Veteran political observers will recall a similar scenario in the 2006 federal election, where the Paul Martin Liberals reached childcare agreements with all 10 provinces, only to lose a minority to the Harper Conservatives, who cancelled the program.

In a recent analysis of the Liberal and Conservative plans, CCPA senior economist David Macdonald concluded: “You end up with a lower quality, higher-cost system if you go with the [for profit model] with a tax credit than if you go with a public system that has a set fee.”

O’Toole sells his plan by saying it gives parents choice. Similar arguments get made when conservatives push for more private sector involvement in healthcare and education.

But “choice” is a loaded term, says Enoch.

“In a free market, your choice is entirely constrained by how much money you have,” he says. “A tax credit is not going to magically create daycare spaces, whereas the Liberal plan will.

“For conservatives this has always been a bugbear,” Enoch adds. “They see universal childcare as a social engineering project where the state takes care of kids — plus it has the peculiar knock-on effect of liberating women and allowing them to enter the workplace.”

“It’s a classic Conservative program that redistributes wealth upward,” Smith agrees. “It won’t result in new childcare spaces, and just seeks to reinforce the gendered division of labour in the household.”  

Want proof of David Macdonald’s conclusion? Just look at the dismal state of long-term care for seniors, because it’s based on the same private/public model O’Toole proposes for Canadian children.

One issue that was expected to be big heading into the campaign was pandemic recovery. Covid 4.0 has put a damper on some of that talk but it’s still there. And here too O’Toole talks like a Red Tory — promising strong economic growth with no program cuts or tax increases, while eliminating the deficit in 10 years.

Does the plan stand scrutiny? Smith doesn’t think so.

“First off, his million jobs guarantee is absolute fiction,” he says. “There’s no way he can guarantee that. He’s talking about sustained three per cent growth over a decade. That hasn’t happened in 30 years. There’s no point debating the economics of his platform because it’s false.”

Remember too, that lurking in the shadows is a horde of deficit hawks from the Harper era. Can O’Toole be trusted to stand up to them and deliver on his campaign promise?

Enoch is skeptical.

“It’s a promise people should be very wary about because the history of conservatives in power is they will wield the debt stick to cut programs they don’t like.”

Wild Cards

As the campaign enters the home stretch, Enoch sees two wild cards that could affect the result. The first is the fourth wave, and how bad it gets. “We’re in it, and it’s growing, especially in conservative provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan where there are no brakes on the train,” he says.

Early in the campaign, O’Toole tried to walk a tightrope here too, mumbling half-hearted support for vaccination and other health measures, while still upholding people’s “freedom”.

Lately, though, it’s been a shaky tightrope. The spark there is rabid groups of protesters who have shown up at Liberal campaign events screaming sexist, racist and hate-crazed vitriol. From there, it’s escalated to equally rabid rallies at hospitals, where protesters have harassed healthcare staff and blocked ambulances from reaching the hospital with patients.

South of the border, Trump Nation is the embodiment of that behaviour. And if swells on the campaign trail, it could hurt O’Toole, says Enoch.

“With vaccination and other public health measures, if you look at polls, it’s overwhelming that people support them,” he says. “The more the other parties can put the idea out that the Conservatives are the party of anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and these violent protests, that can only benefit them.”

Spectacles like the ones we’ve seen recently reignite the fear factor, and considering the Conservatives’ past history and current reality, it’s a legitimate concern, says Smith.

“I think the pressure on the Conservative party from the far right is much stronger than in 2015 and 2019,” he says. “There’s the Yellow Vesters, the anti-Covid, anti-science crowd. The reactionary right is as loud as I’ve ever seen them. The things they’ve done to healthcare professionals are just gross.

“We know it’s there,” says Smith. “The question is, how large is it in the party?”


Sask Seat Stranglehold?

In 2019 the Conservatives captured all 14 Saskatchewan seats. In the national scheme of things, 14 seats are small potatoes. Still, every seat counts.

And while neither Charles Smith nor Simon Enoch would go out on a limb and predict an upset, both thought a few seats could be in play.

One was Desnethé–Missinippi–Churchill River, where veteran NDP MLA Buckley Belanger is running for the Liberals. Both Smith and Enoch felt name recognition could help Belanger unseat northern Saskatchewan’s Conservative incumbent.

Smith says Saskatoon West could also be in play.

“The NDP candidate there is Robert Doucette who is a Métis leader,” says Smith. “He’s got deep roots in that community and is well known, and the NDP held the seat previously under Sheri Benson.”

One seat Enoch has his eye on is Regina–Lewvan.

“It depends on the NDP being able to get the message out that it’s a race between them and the Conservatives,” he says. “You have to convince voters who might support the Liberals. If they can make that argument and it becomes a two-way race, I think the NDP has a real shot in Regina Lewvan.”

As for rural Saskatchewan, the result there is a foregone conclusion. But there still could be some drama, says Enoch.

“Something to watch for is how the fringe, reactionary parties like the People’s Party of Canada and Maverick Party do because if there’s any pushback to O’Toole’s leadership, it will come from there.”

The CPC Vs. Climate Change

When O’Toole squared off against delegates at the Conservative convention, climate change was a hot-button issue. Famously, 54 per cent of delegates rejected a motion to even acknowledge it was real.

That didn’t stop O’Toole from forging ahead with a climate plan — one that even included (gasp!) a carbon tax. But at the same time, he threw the western base a bone saying he would rescind the Liberal’s current emission reduction target of 40 to 45 per cent by 2030. Instead, he would reinstate the Harper-era target of 30 per cent.

Spurred on by the rising toll of death and destruction from severe weather events and other climate impacts, countries around the world are committing to emission reduction targets in the 40 to 50 per cent range by 2030. O’Toole would face considerable international opposition if he tried to cut Canada’s target to 30 per cent.

Would he do it anyway?

Both provincially and federally, conservative governments have a dismal record of hitting climate targets. To reach his, O’Toole is promising to invest in innovative technology to reduce emissions and increase energy efficiency. Then there’s the carbon tax, which would see Canadians pay into a “savings account” through their carbon purchases, then later use the money to pay for green projects to reduce their carbon footprint.

Besides being horrendously convoluted, the tax is capped at $50 a tonne — so its price impact on carbon consumers will be limited.

“When O’Toole said no credible party cannot have a climate plan, he was right,” says Simon Enoch. “But the contents of the plan are incredibly important because it doesn’t match the urgency of the situation. Rolling back emission reduction targets and continuing to subsidize the fossil fuel industry to expand production is going backwards.”