A fork in the road: Erin O’Toole and CPC on different paths

Present-day conservatives get offended when they’re accused of supporting a party that wants to reduce women’s access to reproductive choice. They don’t appreciate being lumped in with fellow supporters who don’t believe climate change is real. And they get particularly prickly when they’re associated with the neo-Nazi’s who just want the same freedoms of expression and association their party is fighting for.

When Stephen Harper rolled out the “Barbaric Cultural Practices” snitch line, and appealed to “old stock Canadians” in the 2015 federal election campaign, Canadians responded by electing a new government. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason.

Among other things, Harper and his CPC were accused of “muzzling scientists” on climate research, eliminating the census to hide regional socioeconomic disparity data, walking back environmental protections in favour of polluters, and knee-capping the freedom of the press.

When Harper resigned after losing the 2015 election, triggering a leadership race, 13 people made it to the ballot to replace him. Canadians were regaled with plans for immigration screening of “anti-Canadian values“, promises never to participate in Pride events, defunding universities who don’t uphold the right kind of free speech, banning niqabs during Citizenship ceremonies, and repealing C-16, a transgender rights bill “in the name of free speech”.

In the end, a solid base of reformers, social conservatives, and a promise to maintain supply management for dairy farmers, led to Andrew Scheer squeaking out a win with less than half a percentage point over Maxime Bernier.

Scheer – after a tumultuous federal election campaign in 2019 where he somehow managed to remain in opposition after three photos of Justin Trudeau in blackface were distributed to American and Canadian media outlets – was forced to resign when information was leaked to the Canadian press that detailed how the CPC had cut cheques for Scheer’s children to attend a Catholic private school in Ontario.

Stephen Harper, who had been sitting on the board of the CPC’s Conservative Fund (that gave permission for the expenses), resigned his seat in 2020 so that he would be “free to block” Jean Charest from entering the CPC leadership race. Charest was one of the only Progressive Conservative Party of Canada members to retain his seat in 1993 when the PCPC was brought from government down to two seats.

Charest did not enter the race.

Instead, the 2020 CPC leadership consisted of a mere four contestants, the unabashed social conservatives Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis, the “True Blue” (but former “red tory”) Erin O’Toole, and co-founder of the CPC, former PCPC leader, Peter MacKay who was more than enough “red tory” for the party faithful.

While O’Toole posited himself as a “red tory” in the 2017 leadership race, in 2020 he appeared the quintessential moderate conservative in his new surroundings, wedged between “Liberal lite” MacKay and the “unapologetic” social conservative Derek Sloan, and the more well-spoken and seemingly moderate social conservative Leslyn Lewis.

In the ranked ballot run-off, O’Toole asked that Lewis’ and Sloan’s supporters give their vote to him – which they did -allowing O’Toole to take MacKay on the final ballot.

But the Reform base has no intention of changing their designs simply because they have a new leader. O’Toole, in an attempt to appeal to the moderate centre where a fair majority of Canadians sit, has been touting his more moderate view for the party – and a CPC government – loudly. The Party messaging still comes off as “angry Albertan” but that’s another post.

Based in Ontario, O’Toole knows that the Party platform must include climate change mitigation proposals, but has to still appeal to the conservative base that wants neither a price on carbon nor regulation imposed on oil and gas development. O’Toole, endorsed by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, had to remove a promise to end government subsidies for fossil fuel companies from his 2020 leadership platform – lest he be unable to secure votes from Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Alberta has been in the unique position of having both government and industry support for carbon pricing and environmental regulations since 2007, but deep-seated rejection from conservative voters, especially grassroots oil and gas “advocacy” groups. That is not to say everything that can be done is, or that nothing new should be considered, but it remains a paradoxical resistance within the province.

Part of the CPC base knows how important climate leadership is, especially in what is widely expected to be an election year, but their policies failed to gain enough votes at the recent policy convention, held March 18-20 online. Worse, O’Toole asked the delegates, in a publicly available speech on March 19 to support the motions.

Jason Kenney enjoyed a similar response from his party membership in 2018, prompting him to retort “I hold the pen” with regards to policies that are used in the election platform.

In a question and answer format between O’Toole and the membership on Sunday, he responded to a question about the failure of the policy to pass.

“The debate is over, climate change is real, and the conservatives, we will have a serious and comprehensive plan to reduce emissions in the next election,” he said.

In the lead up to the CPC’s 2021 policy convention, O’Toole finally exercised his leadership-ness to oust fellow leadership contender Derek Sloan. Ostensibly, Sloan’s removal was for accepting a donation from a known white supremacist (who donated to the campaign under another version of his name), the final straw in what O’Toole called a “pattern of destructive behaviour”, but others believe it was due to Sloan and the Campaign Life Coalition organizing delegates and votes for social conservative policy. Whatever the explanations are, social conservatives are simply concerned that the vocal intolerance, like Sloan’s, will cost them votes.

Social conservatives have been part of conservative parties for decades, even NDP, Liberals, and Progressive Conservatives have, in the past, been very open with their intolerance and it didn’t affect their electoral chances.

Just like O’Toole said “the debate (on climate change) is over”, a majority of Canadians feel the same about discrimination against sexual orientation, gender expression, and allowing politicians, instead of doctors and their patients, to determine reproductive choice.

As leader of the Liberal Party in 2014, Justin Trudeau declared that LPC candidates must be pro-choice, signaling its move to be in line with Canadian law. In comparison, the CPC was still fighting to change the definition of marriage in their policy for another two years, more than a decade after the Civil Marriage Act, and almost two decades after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the definition of spouse as “man and woman” was unconstitutional.

The major waves of change happened in the dawn of a new century which saw an end to discriminatory practices enshrined in law, but also the merger of the Canadian Reform Alliance Party and then its merger with the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

The latter, designed by Alliance leader Stephen Harper and PCPC leader Peter MacKay, brought the social conservatives and progressive conservatives back under the same tent, but under the leadership of the more fundamentalist-friendly Harper.

Harper’s base consisted not only libertarians and fiscal conservatives, but also a greater number of social conservatives who had never before been in, let alone close to, a position in which they could enact policy. Under Harper’s leadership they were placated but not victorious.

The merger afforded one-issue social conservatives the opportunity to get elected across the country – where Reform and the Canadian Alliance had been limited to western Canadian seats.

The ability to get people who share their beliefs elected, and put pressure on the leadership to enact social policy, spurred special interest groups into action, especially where they were able to see their efforts realized in electing social conservatives like Derek Sloan to parliament.

The significant increase in the number of National Councillors who respect the party constitution is an enormous win that should pave the way to electing more pro-life MPs in the future. The official party policy declaration has been made a little more pro-life and more forcefully advocating for freedom of speech. We frustrated almost every attempt by progressives to take away the voice of social conservatives.

Campaign Life Coalition National President, Jeff Gunnarson, March 20, 2021

The National Executive Council acts as the board of directors for the CPC.

Campaign Life Coalition stated they were successful in electing 7 new board members to the National Executive Council and although CLC did not have the opportunity to interview Amber Ruddy, formerly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, was optimistic she would also support the cause as “she told another organization that she is pro-life.”

Another organization heavily involved in the CPC is RightNow. The group is active in provincial and federal politics, and, like CLC, works to elect pro-life candidates. RightNow’s press release was similar to CLC’s but added that they would now be working toward election readiness.

“Now that we have further established pro-lifer’s voices within the party structure, we will be working with our 30,000 supporters across Canada to prepare for a potential election later this spring,” said Scott Hayward, RightNow co-founder and President.

RightNow doesn’t always advertise the candidates they are supporting, as evidenced in the 2019 election in Alberta.

“We fully expect that pro-lifers will continue to get further involved in the Conservative Party of Canada coming out of this convention,” added RightNow Co-founder and Executive Director Alissa Golob.

On the one hand, the background work the special interest groups are doing is going to be continually at odds with a leader who intends to reach a broader voting bloc of Canadians. In the worst case scenario for the leadership, more Derek Sloans are elected to parliament who will wreak havoc with the tenuous image of a mainstream political option.

On the other – and as a political-dynasty-raised Albertan, I’m biased – who really pays attention to the person whose name is emboldened on a blue sign?

This post contains opinion.

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political commentator physically distancing in Southern Alberta. 
Connect: @Mitchell_AB for more, @thisweekinAB for posts@politicalRnD for something in between

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