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The challenges facing the Conservative Party may be bigger than Erin O’Toole

Sen. Denise Batters has a point when she criticizes Erin O’Toole’s leadership of the Conservative Party.

But O’Toole’s leadership might also be beside the point — because the challenges facing Conservatives will be the same no matter who leads them.

That was true when Andrew Scheer was compelled to step aside and it might be even more true now.

“On [the] carbon tax, on guns, on conscience rights — he flip-flopped on our policies within the same week, the same day and even within the same sentence,” Batters claims in the video she posted Monday to promote her call for a party referendum on O’Toole.

“He won the leadership race claiming to be ‘true blue’ but ran an election campaign nearly indistinguishable from [Justin] Trudeau’s Liberals.”

Batters overstates her case but she’s aiming at something real. The candidate O’Toole claimed to be in this fall’s federal election was different from the candidate he claimed to be in last year’s Conservative leadership race. And as O’Toole tried to pivot, he turned the party in different directions.

The “true blue” leadership candidate took a harder line on government spending and a more expansive view of “conscience rights” for doctors who do not agree with abortion or medically assisted death.

O’Toole condemned “Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax” but then — apparently without warning his caucus — pledged that a Conservative government led by him would introduce its own plan to price carbon emissions. He told Conservatives that he wanted to defund large parts of the CBC, then promised merely to review the Crown corporation’s mandate.

An awkward pivot on the campaign trail

This pattern made trouble for O’Toole during the election campaign. Confronted by Trudeau over a promise to repeal the Liberal government’s ban on “assault-style” weapons — one O’Toole commitment from the leadership race that had made it into the Conservative Party’s election platform — O’Toole abruptly and awkwardly tried to change his position.

With his confusing explanations and his inability to close the discussion, O’Toole made that issue harder for himself than it needed to be. But maybe any Conservative leader would have struggled to find a position on gun control that satisfied both his party’s base and the broader electorate.

the challenges facing the conservative party may be bigger than erin otoole
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole turns to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau during the federal election French-language leaders debate on September 8, 2021 in Gatineau, Que. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A poll released by Leger in March found that 66 per cent of Canadians agreed that “there should be stricter gun control regulations.” That support ran to 71 per cent of urban dwellers and 65 per cent of suburbanites.

Among Liberal and NDP voters, support was 80 and 72 per cent. But just 47 per cent of Conservative supporters favoured stricter gun control.

Citing that and other public opinion polls, Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, recently argued that “the major fault lines” in Canadian politics “now run through the country’s conservative coalitions.” That, he wrote, is “preventing them from articulating stable compromises on many of the issues that matter most to Canadians.”

Gaps between the party and popular opinion

As Prest noted, those fault lines run right through the biggest public policy issues of the day: the pandemic and climate change.

Although vaccine mandates are overwhelmingly popular, some number of Conservatives are said to be joining a “civil liberties caucus” that will concern itself with the rights and privileges of the unvaccinated. More than 80 per cent of Canadians believe that MPs should be vaccinated but O’Toole has stopped short of promising that all Conservative MPs will be vaccinated and in their seats when the House of Commons reconvenes next week.

The deepest fault line may be the one on climate change. A recent poll by Angus Reid found that 71 per cent of Canadians agreed that “climate change is a fact and is mostly caused by human activities.”

Only 44 per cent of Conservative voters agreed with that statement. Seventy-five per cent of all people surveyed said that climate change is a “very serious” or “serious” threat to the planet. Just 51 per cent of Conservative voters saw it that way.

When it comes to the federal response to climate change, 52 per cent of respondents said the Trudeau government was doing too little, compared to 30 per cent who said the Liberals were pushing too hard. Among Conservatives, the numbers were reversed: 29 per cent said the government wasn’t doing enough and 64 per cent said it was moving too aggressively.

One campaign for the leadership, another for the country

Smart policy might be able to bridge some of the divides. And electoral arithmetic is never perfectly simple — even if a Conservative supporter resolutely opposes government action on climate change, he or she might find other reasons to show up and vote for the blue team.

But these differences in opinion and worldview certainly make it harder for someone to win both the Conservative leadership and a general election.

At the same time, it’s not obvious that O’Toole deserves the sympathy of voters, Conservative or otherwise. Perhaps anyone in O’Toole’s job would have struggled with these issues — but one can debate whether O’Toole found the best or most direct way to do it.

After suggesting that Peter MacKay, his primary opponent in the leadership race, would move the party toward the “mushy middle,” O’Toole turned around and told the party in March that it needed to have the “courage” to change — without quite explaining how.

Maybe he was right in March. But if the party was due for a reckoning, that conversation probably should have happened during the leadership race.

WATCH: Sen. Batters says she won’t withdraw petition calling for leadership review

SOT DENISE BATTERS FULL REPEAT frame 14476.png?crop=1

Senator Batters rejects MP’s request that she withdraw petition calling for O’Toole’s ouster

2 days ago

Saskatchewan Conservative Sen. Denise Batters joins Power & Politics to discuss her petition to fire Erin O’Toole as the Conservative Party leader. 8:04

So some Conservatives may feel they were misled. Worse still, O’Toole might also worry now that his changes in tone and messaging have left voters with doubts about his authenticity. If so, the next election might not be any easier for him.

But any discussion of O’Toole’s approach to the Conservative leadership eventually leads back to those fault lines — and the question of whether a different leader could or should do things differently.

Could the Conservative Party win the next election with a leader who promises to greatly expand conscience rights, roll back gun control and renounce carbon pricing? Maybe. But it’s hard to see how such a shift would make victory more likely.

Would promising to also sharply constrain all federal spending make it easier or harder for the Conservative Party to form government after the next election?

Losing the argument on child care

If anything, it’s possible now to see how the Conservatives might have to moderate their positions even more for the next election. In this fall’s campaign, O’Toole vowed to walk away from the Trudeau government’s child care plans. But the Liberals have since convinced Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government in Alberta to sign on and it seems highly likely the last remaining holdouts — Ontario and New Brunswick — will be onside in time for the next election.

If another Conservative leadership race happens before then, a moderate candidate could choose to confront these issues directly. But then maybe that candidate would be trampled by claims that they were dragging the party to the “mushy middle.”

Ultimately, O’Toole’s turn as Conservative leader may raise two big questions for the party.

Can a “true blue” Conservative win a general election right now? Could a moderate Conservative win the party leadership?

If the answer to both of those questions is “no,” the party might have a big problem.

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