Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Tuesday March 23, 2021
O’Toole’s pitch to get Conservatives to embrace ‘change’ may be off to a shaky start
Erin O’Toole told Conservatives this weekend that their party must change — because if it doesn’t, he said, it won’t be able to win the votes necessary to defeat Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the next election.
And if the Liberals do win, he added, they’ll be able to implement their own changes — changes that O’Toole cast as frightening and potentially ruinous.
But O’Toole didn’t tell Conservatives exactly how they need to change. And then delegates delivered a potentially damaging vote on climate change policy that suggests his party base might not be ready to move very far.
O’Toole is on solid ground when he says the Conservative Party needs to try something different. His own polling numbers make that obvious. But so did the last federal election.
In 2019, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives ran on an implicit promise to return to the policy agenda of Stephen Harper’s government. Scheer promised to smile more than his predecessor did but stopped short of offering a new approach — particularly on climate change.
The Conservatives won 34 per cent of the popular vote in that election. That was two points better than the party’s performance under Harper in 2015, but its national result in 2019 was inflated by the massive Conservative turnout in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Ontario and Quebec — where 199 of the country’s 338 ridings are located — the Conservatives actually lost ground under Scheer.
A year and a half later, O’Toole’s Conservatives are sitting at 30 per cent nationally. And O’Toole’s personal approval rating might be even more of a problem.
According to survey results released by Abacus Data last week, 23 per cent of Canadians are committed to voting Conservative in the next election and another 23 per cent would consider voting Conservative.
But as the Abacus numbers point out, the differences between those two groups are substantial. Compared to those who have decided already to vote for O’Toole’s party, those potential Conservative voters are younger, more diverse, much more concerned about climate change and much less angry about Justin Trudeau.
O’Toole said his party must have a “serious” and “comprehensive” plan for climate change. But he doubled down on his criticism of the current federal carbon price and fell back on a framing that casts “the environment” as a discrete issue — as opposed to a broader view that sees climate policy as intertwined with almost all other areas of public policy.
“As important as climate change is, getting our economy back on track is more important,” he said.
In his prepared remarks, he said he wanted to defeat the “lie” that the Conservative Party is a party of “climate change deniers.” On Friday night and then again during a question-and-answer session with party members on Saturday afternoon, O’Toole declared that the “debate” over climate change is over.
But in between those two pronouncements came the news that Conservative delegates had rejected a resolution that would have declared that “climate change is real” and “the Conservative party is willing to act” — while committing the party to targeting high emitters and supporting innovation.
The headlines generated by that vote might be a serious setback to O’Toole’s goal of rebranding his party. Liberals will no doubt be happy to remind him of that vote at every opportunity in the weeks and months ahead. (CBC)