Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Thursday March 18, 2021
Erin O’Toole’s problems largely his own making
Regardless of your political stripe, it is tempting to feel some empathy for Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole as he heads into this weekend’s party policy convention — virtually, of course.
Since his election to lead the Conservative Party of Canada, O’Toole has repeated over and over that his objective is to make the party a bigger tent, to be more relevant to moderate Canadian viewpoints, to focus on the economy and stay away from hot button social issues. He did not make the mistakes his predecessor made by being evasive about his own views. He has repeatedly stated he is pro-choice and has no interest in reopening the abortion debate. O’Toole has been much more candid than Andrew Scheer was, and that should count for something.
And yet, on the eve of the first significant policy convention under his leadership, O’Toole is facing an internal rebellion from the social conservative wing of his party, which wants to reopen the abortion debate by inserting language in the party’s constitution that states life begins at conception.
Here is where we should put the brakes on that empathy. O’Toole is in this situation because he courted, strongly, social conservatives including the anti-abortion movement. He is in good company in this regard. Premier Doug Ford would not have won his party’s leadership had he not courted and won over social conservative groups, including the one headed by Charles McVety, now trying to get public accreditation for his religious college. Ford was able to keep his social conservative supporters at bay. O’Toole may have more trouble doing so.
In the leadership race, Canada’s biggest anti-abortion group, Campaign Life Coalition, claimed it swayed the outcome by recruiting more than 26,000 new Conservative members. It also claimed social conservatives accounted for 35 per cent of all votes cast in the leadership contest.
After O’Toole’s victory, Campaign Life said in a statement: “We expect that Erin O’Toole will ensure that social conservatives are respected and their values represented within the party going forward … Everyone knows you can’t win a general election without your base.”
RightNow, another anti-abortion group, claimed it recruited 10,000 party members for the vote, and said O’Toole would be upholding the same policy on abortion as former leader Scheer. O’Toole told the group that “social conservatives” would be repaid for their support with a “seat at the table.”
He also said: “Basically, for the pro-lifers in our party, they will know two fundamental things about me … I value them in our party and I respect their important role in our movement.”
So it’s really quite simple. O’Toole, like Ford, needed social conservatives to support him in the leadership race, and now, not surprisingly, they want to see the payback for that support. There is nothing wrong with that — quid pro quo is a staple in politics.
But O’Toole’s problem is fundamental, perhaps even existential. The more he accommodates the social conservative agenda, which centres largely around less gun control and putting restrictions on abortions, the more he hurts his party’s chances of pulling itself out of the 30 per cent of public support territory it has inhabited since Scheer took over leadership from Stephen Harper. And 30 per cent public support does not win elections.
Nor do issues like less access to abortion services and less control over guns play well in urban centres, including the 905, Toronto and urban Quebec, where the Conservatives really need to increase their support to challenge the Liberals in the next election. In short, it’s a sticky wicket, but it’s one that O’Toole himself put in place. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)