Politics Blog: New Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is beholden to far-right interests

Toronto – September 10, 2020 – Late into the night, long after most of the media had gone to bed, Durham Member of Parliament (MP) Erin O’Toole was declared elected as the new leader of the Conservative Party on the third ballot. O’Toole was able to surpass the first ballot leader Peter MacKay to win the Conservative leadership race thanks largely to alternate choice votes from the two socially conservative candidates in the race — Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan.

O’Toole replaces Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer as leader of Canada’s rightwing party. Scheer failed miserably in the last federal election largely because of his socially conservative views on abortion, same sex marriage, and transgender rights, which he refused to address during the campaign.

Since becoming the new leader, O’Toole has stressed that he is pro-choice. However, the powerful social conservative arm of the party claim O’Toole is indebted to them for his victory. A campaign video leaked during the campaign showed O’Toole appealing to social conservatives for their second-choice votes, going as far as suggesting he would be willing to make concessions on issues like conversion therapy or medical assistance in dying. The Campaign Life Coalition, Canada’s largest anti-abortion group, recruited over 26,000 new members during the leadership race, claiming it swayed the outcome of the vote.

“We expect that Erin O’Toole will ensure that social conservatives are respected and their values represented within the party going forward,” the Coalition said in a statement. “Everybody knows you can’t win a general election without your base.”

In an interview, O’Toole promised that “social conservatives” will be repaid for their support with a “seat at the table.” “They will know two fundamental things about me,” O’Toole said. “I value them in our party, and I respect their important role in our movement.”

Leadership candidate Derek Sloan came under fire during the campaign for racist, bigoted, and misogynistic statements, particularly comments directed at Canada’s chief public health officer that lead to all Ontario Conservative MPs voting for Sloan to apologize. But the only MP in the province who didn’t call for this apology was Erin O’Toole.

This raises the question: who else is O’Toole beholden to for his victory, and how does this reflect on the path ahead for the new leader? Only one of five Conservative premiers in the country made an endorsement during the leadership race, and that was Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Kenney must have believed that O’Toole was in sync with the types of destructive policies that he has been implementing in Alberta. O’Toole has spoken out in favour of Kenney’s campaign against equalization payments and has echoed Kenney’s rhetoric about alleged foreign-funded activist campaigns aimed at destroying the growth of the provinces oil and gas industry. Interestingly, a pledge in O’Toole’s policy book to end fossil fuel subsidies lasted for one day before being removed. Like any Conservative politician seeking support from Alberta, O’Toole will bend himself into pretzels to please the corporate interests of big oil and gas employers. 

Other policy positions espoused by O’Toole were red meat for the party’s hard-right conservative wing. O’Toole promised to defund the CBC, cancel the federal carbon tax, and offered up more corporate tax cuts and the removal of regulations. O’Toole also proposed that any new spending ideas must include a dollar-for-dollar cut in spending elsewhere. His policy book promised to stand up for gun ownership, use the notwithstanding clause to enforce the failed policy of mandatory minimum sentences, and make it a criminal offence to block transportation infrastructure – a policy clearly designed to suppress voices within Canada’s indigenous population and environmental movement.

During the campaign, O’Toole’s digital director was Jeff Ballingal, the founder of the Ontario Proud and Canada Proud Facebook pages, which are backed by considerable corporate funding. Ballingal is also the chief marketing officer for the far-right website, The Post Millennial. And Jay Hill, former conservative MP and now leader of the separatist Wexit party in Alberta, even casted a vote for O’Toole, even though the rules don’t allow for members of other parties to cast a ballot. Clearly, then, O’Toole has the backing of the most right-wing elements within the Conservative Party.

Erin O’Toole is trying to paint himself as a moderate, but when we look at who he is beholden to for his leadership victory, he looks a lot like a continuation of the failed, far-right experiment that was Andrew Scheer.