Jordan: The first thing that you need to know about Erin O’Toole is that as of six months ago, none of this was supposed to happen for him.
News Clip: Erin O’Toole is the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. O’Toole took a big lead in Quebec on the first ballot, edging out former defence minister, Peter McKay, the candidate who raised the most money and earned the most endorsements on the campaign trail.
Jordan: The second thing you need to know about him is that the way he pulled off the upset win might end up making some Conservatives angry and some Liberals worried.
News Clip- Erin O’Toole: I believe that whether you are Black, white, Brown, or from any race or creed, whether you are LGBT or straight, whether you are an Indigenous Canadian or have joined the Canadian family three weeks ago, whether you worship on Friday, Saturday, Sundays, or not at all, you are an important part of Canada. And you have a home in the Conservative party of Canada.
Jordan: So who is the new Conservative leader? Is he the guy who won because he was an acceptable choice for the socially conservative wing of the party? Or is he the guy who previously broke with his fellow MPs to support an early bill advocating for trans rights? Does he have a plan for climate change? Can he walk the fine line between appeasing the hard right and attracting new voters? Who’s the real Erin O’Toole? And how worried should Justin Trudeau and his Liberals be? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Marie-Danielle Smith is a writer at the Ottawa Bureau for Maclean’s magazine. Hello, Marie-Danielle.
Marie-Danielle: How’s it going?
Jordan: It’s going well. And we have a new Conservative party of Canada leader.
Marie-Danielle: We do indeed. After a multi hour snafu, during which it was quite unclear when that would happen.
Jordan: And you had actually profiled Erin O’Toole earlier this year.
Marie-Danielle: I did.
Jordan: Why don’t you start by just telling me, I mean, in the big picture, we’re going to ask who is he and all that stuff, but just where did he come from? Like where was he born? Where did he grow up? Tell me about him.
Marie-Danielle: Yeah. So he actually spent the first year of his life in Montreal. He jokes that he didn’t have enough time to learn French. She was just a baby. But his family moved to the GTA to Bowmanville, Ontario when his dad, who worked for GM, got a promotion to their main plant there in Oshawa. So he grew up sort of on the outskirts of Toronto. His mother when he was nine years old, passed away from breast cancer, and ultimately his dad remarried. And then he ended up being the oldest of five kids in their combined household.
Jordan: And what about his background before he ever got into politics? What did he do? I am assuming, that the Conservatives would not have chosen him if he was a drama teacher.
Marie-Danielle: Probably not. Yeah, he was very interested from a young age in the military and actually an anecdote that he told me about was going to see Top Gun when it came out, that Tom Cruise movie. He was 13 at the time and he sort of left the movie theatre thinking he wanted to become a fighter pilot. So this sort of became his goal, as a teenager. And he spent some time in Kingston, he had worked, for a pipeline inspecting pipeline and along the route between Brockville and Ottawa, I believe. And he had spent some time on the Royal Military College campus, thought it was beautiful, decided he’d walk into their recruitment center and try to become a fighter pilot, just like he dreamed. Turned out he didn’t have, I guess, the competency that they were looking for or the visual acuity maybe that they were looking for in a fighter pilot. So he ended up being selected as an air navigator instead. So he likes to say he didn’t end up being Maverick, it was more like he ended up being Goose, if you know those characters from that movie. So for quite a while, he served in the military and the Air Force, and he hopped around to a couple of different places, went into Manitoba for a while, ended up in Halifax, and then decided to leave the military and go to law school at Dalhousie University.
Jordan: And how’d he end up in politics?
Marie-Danielle: So while he was in the military and just before he went to law school, his dad actually became a provincial MPP for the Durham riding, which is the one that Erin O’Toole now represents. He had the law career, he worked on Bay Street in Toronto for a while. He worked at Proctor and Gamble. And he sort of had his eye on politics, I think partly because he had watched his dad kind of stick-handle the partisan cut and thrust, but also, you know, make a difference for people in his riding. So he was inspired by that, he says. And he, when Bev Oda stepped out of that riding in 2012, he ran in the by-election to replace her.
Jordan: Can you maybe give me an overview of his work as a Conservative MP? I mean, to a casual observer, he did not have much of a high profile, right?
Marie-Danielle: He didn’t. So he, for the first little while he was under that Harper conservative majority government. So he was a parliamentary secretary to the trade minister for a while. And then he very briefly served in cabinet. He was the veteran’s affairs minister from January, 2015, until that government got defeated by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals that fall. His tenure as veteran’s affairs minister is a little hard to assess just because he was only there for about nine months, but he inherited a big mess. And so the opinions kind of vary between, did he improve the mess of that file a little bit and make it less of an issue in that election? You could argue that he did. On the other hand, you have some veterans’ affairs advocates who think that, you know, he made it worse than that he didn’t really fix anything while he was there. The question is whether he would have had time to. Since Trudeau got elected, O’Toole mainly served as the foreign affairs critic for the party. He spent quite a lot of time on that file. He also already ran for the Conservative leadership, you might remember, back in 2017, when Andrew Scheer ran for that.
Jordan: There were a lot of Conservatives running in 2017.
Marie-Danielle: There were 14 of them. But Erin O’Toole came in third actually. And so instead of walking away from the party the way that Maxine Bernier did, and, you know, kind of huffing out in the storm, he took on this foreign affairs critic role. And so that’s what he spent most of his time looking at, were international issues.
Jordan: Where does he set on the political spectrum? I mean, obviously to the right, but that encompasses a fair bit these days.
Marie-Danielle: It does. So I think in a lot of ways, Erin O’Toole represents continuity. It’s hard to find too many areas where he and Andrew Scheer would disagree. But one of those really important areas is actually on social politics. So the Conservative party, as we know, has a pretty large contingent of social conservatives, people who in particular are pro-life and care about the issue of abortion. It’s always a struggle for a Conservative leader to please that contingent of the party, make them feel included, and make sure they’re being heard, while also trying to appeal to the rest of the Canadian public, you know, most of whom I think has sort of moved on from that issue, right? So on that issue, he’s actually, you know, approached choice person personally, he says he’ll merchant Pride parades. He is relatively socially liberal that way. He had voted in favour of a transgender rights bill in 2013 that very few Conservatives at the time voted in of. So he has a couple of things he can hang his hat on with this. At the same time, though, he did court that social conservative vote in this leadership race. He sort of borrowed from the playbook that Andrew Scheer used last time in trying to tell people who would support a socially conservative candidate, in this case, it was Derek Sloan or Leslie Lewis, telling them, Hey, you know, I believe in religious freedom, I believe in protecting your rights, I believe in conscious rights, I’ll fight for those rights just the same as I would fight for the rights of a gay person. And so he courted that vote and it worked out for him. He basically did a, in a way, a repeat performance of what allowed Andrew Scheer to win last time.
Jordan: I was going to ask, is that what put them over the top? Because again, for somebody that doesn’t really dig into internal party politics, it seemed like this was Peter Mackay’s to lose when it began.
Marie-Danielle: Peter McKay obviously had the most name recognition, right? I mean, Peter McKay had served for a long time in the Harper cabinet and that had been sort of a mixed record, but everyone kind of knows who the guy is. And he has this very picture, perfect family, and he’s socially progressive in ways that, you know, the party, I think many in the party are hoping that the sort of move towards so as to become more appealing to the broader voting public. But it’s kind of a complicated system, and maybe I’ll just tell you a bit about what it looks like.
Marie-Danielle: The way that the Conservative leader got elected had more to do with, like an even regional distribution and a ranked ballot, than it did with say like the popular vote. So you could have a riding in Quebec where like 40 or 50 Conservative voters were, and that writing would be worth exactly the same amount as a riding in the middle of Alberta, where thousands of conservative members might have cast a vote. So because of that regional distribution, you see O’Toole fighting really hard in the lead up to his victory to secure votes in Quebec. And his team in Quebec did a really good job. He came out ahead of Peter MacKay in Quebec, and even before we had seen across cross country results, everyone kind of knew that that spelled trouble for MacKay. Because there are so many ridings in Quebec and that regional distribution is so important that whoever won that province was going to have a serious leg up. So there’s that. Then there’s also, as I mentioned, the ranked ballot. And this is where as the voting goes on, if nobody has more than 50% of the vote, the person with the least number of points in this regional distribution that they do drops off the ballot. And then the second choice votes from that person go to whomever. So this is why Erin O’Toole did well to really try and secure support, second choice or third choice support from those socially conservative candidates, who people largely thought didn’t really have a chance to win. And so those two things, the focus on Quebec and the focus on sort of appealing to those social conservative voters, even if he doesn’t agree with them on everything, those are the two things that put him over the edge.
Jordan: I want to ask you a bit about what people think of him that you talk to as a politician and maybe with respect to how he’ll take on the Liberal government. So what are some of his strengths politically that could make him a problem for Trudeau, from folks you talked to?
Marie-Danielle: Well, I think an important strength is actually something that in politics you might’ve considered to be a weakness. And that’s that he’s kind of a boring guy. And I don’t mean to offend with that comment. He kind of comes across, at the very least in person, as a guy who might live on your block, who you might have a beer with on your front porch. He doesn’t come across as, you know, a flashy guy in the sense that Justin Trudeau does, or even in some ways, Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the NDP does. So he doesn’t have this kind of celebrity sparkling quality to him. And I think that, you know, as we approach, it’s been, I guess, five years now of a Liberal prime minister who does have that quality, I think you could argue that the Conservatives do well to have someone in the role who is a little, you know, a little more measured in some way, or a little less glitzy, if I can put it like that.
Jordan: Sure, down to earth.
Marie-Danielle: Down to earth. It’s like your neighbour, but if your neighbour was obsessed with Winston Churchill. So in terms of policy, you know, we’ll see what he comes up with. But based on this huge policy book that he had during his leadership campaign, 50 pages long, we do know some of the things that he will try to do to combat Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. He says he will get rid of the carbon tax, find ways to support the energy sector. He would defund CBC Television in great part, which for some would be a controversial position. He does have a couple of controversial policies, that have raised eyebrows for some. One is that he would use the notwithstanding clause to enforce mandatory minimum sentences in prisons. Another is that he would make it a criminal offence to block transportation infrastructure, and now that is in response quite directly to that other national crisis that we saw before the pandemic this year, which was the rail blockades and the widespread protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en people, and their dealings with the RCMP. So to block a rail shipment, as did happen earlier this year, under an O’Toole government, could become a criminal offence.
Jordan: What about his weaknesses? If you’re, you know, waking up on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday as a Liberal strategist, what are you looking to attack first? Cause they’re going to try to define him, right?
Marie-Danielle: Of course. And so the first thing they’ll look at is the persona that he adopted during this leadership campaign, which is this very bullish kind of true blue Conservative attack dog kind of vibe. It’s not similar to the way that he ran in 2017. He says that he’s the same person, just that he’s more worried about the country now, and that’s why he comes across this way. But a lot of it has to do with some of the people around him, some of the smart people that put around him, who have made him come across that way, especially on social media. So there will probably be questions around who he is surrounding him self with, a person and who was influential on his digital team who I think helped him with social media engagement, made him more visible in the race, is Jeff Ballingall. So that guy has his finger in a lot of pies. He is involved with the Post-Millennial, which is right-leaning website that Andrew Scheer actually promoted just the other night. And he’s also behind the Ontario Proud and Canada Proud Facebook pages. There’s a lot of conjecture around, you know, the kinds of themes, especially anti-immigrant themes or perceived anti-immigrant themes, that come across on some of those websites. And so, O’Toole’s links with that character and with those kinds of projects and narratives will probably be raised by the Liberals. I think in general, though, something to keep in mind is that O’Toole’s problems really are the Conservative party’s problems. I think a majority of Canadians weren’t paying a lot of attention during this leadership race, right? It’s a pandemic, it’s hard to keep track of, and perhaps not very interesting, for say a Liberal voter to keep track of the nuances in a Conservative leadership race at this time. So he has an opportunity to sort of set the tone with people anew, when Parliament comes back. He’s already an MP, so that will help him. And he’s going to have to address the issues that the Conservative party has already had to address. Like I said before, there’s sort of the social conservative contingent that a lot of left-leaning Canadians are very leery of. They think, you know, that there is some kind of a backdoor perhaps into O’Toole’s office that will allow someone to raise the issue of abortion and really try to push that ahead in Canada. He says he won’t allow that to happen, but it’s a spectre that sort of haunted Andrew Scheer throughout his tenure and will become an issue for O’Toole as well, just because of the strategy that he took, the successful strategy that he took during this leadership campaign. The final issue that, of course, Conservatives have dealt with and found very tricky over the past number of years is climate change. Erin O’Toole appears to be interested in pursuing a climate change policy. He doesn’t suggest the climate change isn’t happening. But he does want to get rid of the carbon tax. He does want to support the energy industry. And the Conservative party has often really struggled with how to square that with lowering emissions in Canada and with addressing and mitigating the effects of climate change. So all of these issues that the Conservative party was already dealing with, O’Toole will inherit, and there’ll be extra pressure on him to try and differentiate himself from Andrew Scheer, because in so many ways, from the way that they ran their leadership campaigns to the policies that they proposed, they really are quite similar. So he doesn’t represent this huge shift that some Conservatives maybe would have hoped for.
Jordan: During the time that you were reporting the profile and talking to folks who knew him, did you get a sense of where he really is on the one issue that you’ve come back to a couple of times now, on if the social conservatives have his ear or not? And I’m just trying to like, I’m sorry if I’m prying a little bit more, but I I’m just fascinated by this tight rope that he’s trying to walk.
Marie-Danielle: I really think, personally, based on my conversations and reporting this profile a little while ago, that that is a strategic choice, more than anything else. And now I think the tone of his speech after he won made it clear that this was not the direction he wanted to take the party in. It was clear that he wanted to seem like an inclusive new leader, someone who was not going to be leaving people out of the proverbial tent. So my guess is that while this was a very good way to win the leadership race, some social conservatives may feel now that he’s turning his back on them. And there is consistency in that O’Toole’s personal beliefs on this, he has talked about those well before he ran for leadership, you know, he doesn’t believe in restricting abortion or at least he doesn’t have pro-life beliefs in this sweeping way that some of the other candidates did. So I do think that this was sort of an opportunistic move and he was accused of that during the race. Some MPs who actually supported him in his leadership around the last time, decided not to support him this time cause they saw that that’s what he was doing and they didn’t like it. Because he was sort of, you know, in their eyes taking advantage of this group and this sort of current in the party that they find, you know, antiquated and that they don’t want to see furthered by a new leader. Will they have his ear? I think any Conservative leader at this point needs to recognize that it’s quite a fractured and large party. And so if you don’t, at the very least, listen, you probably have a pretty big internal unity problem. So they may have his ear, but I don’t think that that’s going to translate into meaningful policy.
Jordan: My last question is just, in the course of reporting all this and talking to all sorts of people and talking to O’Toole himself, what was the most interesting thing you found out about him?
Marie-Danielle: This is what I mean about having a candidate who sort of defies Trudeau in so many different ways. I can point to O’Toole’s time as a fighter pilot, I can point to– and this wasn’t in the piece, but he talked a bit about some of the work that he did at Proctor and Gamble, and he was recognized for outing counterfeit products and like, you know, putting out some fires internationally. Pursuing successful lawsuits. It’s the kind of stuff that– and this might be fortunate for him– it’s the kind of stuff that makes your eyes glaze over a little bit. You don’t necessarily want at the helm of the Conservative party right now, somebody who you can look at their history and point to a thousand different issues or anecdotes or problems or controversial moments. So he does have a little bit of a blank slate. I can share with you the most interesting metaphor that I was given about what he’s really like. And what he is really like is an interesting question, because it will affect how he runs the party. In general, he was considered to be, you know, a fantastic team player over the last few years, especially after losing to Andrew Scheer. But there was the sense, and a source put it this way, there was a sense that he was just waiting for an opportunity, and they compared it to this scene in the dark night, the Batman movie from 2008, where the Joker is, you know, choosing his acolytes. And he says, in this bar he says, we’re having tryouts and there’s only room for one. And he breaks the pool cue and he throws the sharp ended half of the pool cue on the ground and leaves the room, implying that they should, you know, so much grab it and basically Duke it out. And the source told me that Erin is the guy reaching for the stick. So take from that what you will. He’s an ambitious guy. He employed a really successful strategy to win the position that he has. He’s got lots of policy ideas. From a personality point of view, if you set aside, and I think maybe it’s worth setting aside the social media tone that he used during this campaign, he is working more or less from a blank slate. So that’s not the worst position to be in, I think if you’re a Conservative voter and looking ahead to what’s coming next.
Jordan: And we’ll see what he writes on it. Thank you so much Marie-Danielle.
Marie-Danielle: Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Marie-Danielle Smith of Maclean’s. That was The Big Story. If you would like more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. Write to us by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Rate us and review us and subscribe and tell your friends in your podcast player of choice. We are in all of them. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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