Given how little most Canadians know about Erin O’Toole, it’s critical that the Conservative leader quickly show them what he’s really made of and why they should vote for him and his party in the next election.
As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
So far for O’Toole, that first impression isn’t very impressive.
Since he won the leadership in late August, the Conservative party has increasingly become the home of far-right conspiracists, COVID-19 anti-vaxxers, emboldened hard-line gun lovers and politicians spouting anti-socialist hysterics.
Through all of this O’Toole has tried to appease the worst elements in the Conservative fold by issuing vague statements that say nothing, neither condemning nor praising the actors who are now defining the party as it prepares to fight the coming election.
First, O’Toole has refused to condemn Tory MP Derek Sloan for sponsoring a nation-wide petition championed by anti-vaxxers that spreads falsehoods about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. To date, more than 30,000 people have signed the petition.
Instead, O’Toole insists it is the Liberals’ “incompetence” that’s to blame for Canadians’ fears about the vaccines. Right now, this tacit support for the anti-vaxxer crowd is about the only thing people are talking about when it comes to the Conservatives.
Second, O’Toole has given free rein to Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre, his most senior MP, to flirt with the conspiracy crowd by becoming a cheerleader for far-right loonies who have convinced themselves that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other global elites are plotting to impose a socialist order on the world, enriching themselves and making the masses poorer.
In recent weeks, Poilievre has gone to vast lengths to demonize what’s called the “Great Reset,” a simple, non-offensive vision by the World Economic Forum that suggests the COVID-19 pandemic provides a chance to adopt policies to reduce economic inequality around the globe.
And what has O’Toole done to convince Canadians he doesn’t agree with Poilievre and the conspiracists? Nothing!
Third, far-right Conservatives love to toss the word “socialist” at Liberals and progressives, firing up their base and suggesting Canada is heading toward destruction. During the Trump presidency, the smearing of “socialists” has become more common in Canada.
The best example was a recent column in the National Post by Leslyn Lewis, who finished third in the Tory leadership race and will be the Tory candidate in the Ontario riding of Haldiman-Norfolk. Lewis, a darling of the Tory right and touted as a possible future leader, warned in excitable language that Trudeau is leading “a socialist coup” in Canada, which she described as “a quiet and bloodless revolution that seeks to control our lives through economic dependency,” right down to confiscating part of your retirement savings.
Fourth, O’Toole has done nothing to distance himself from the vitriol spewed by pro-gun lobbyists. For example, Tracey Wilson, a lobbyist for the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, who brags about having met several times with O’Toole, took to Twitter recently to call families affected by the deadly 2018 Danforth shootings “buffoons” and “ghouls” for advocating for tighter gun measures. From O’Toole, a pro-gun supporter, there was only silence.
Overall, O’Toole’s strategy of giving wide latitude to these elements may play well with Conservative voters who reside in ridings long held by Tory MPs. But it’s highly questionable whether his appeasement tactics will translate into gains in urban and suburban ridings where the party so desperately needs to make inroads in the next election.
All of this makes O’Toole look as if he is either a willing accomplice in these approaches or a captive of those who espouse them. Either way, he’s coming across as an unprepared amateur who may be playing right into the Liberals’ hands.
If O’Toole hopes to close the gap with the Liberals, he should disavow the nuttiness within his shadow cabinet, his caucus and his new candidates. If he doesn’t, then they will gain even more public attention — and that likely won’t be good for him.
Maybe O’Toole needs be reminded of the saying: You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.