For those of you lucky enough to not spend your lives on political Twitter, I’m going to give you a good example of how the Liberal Party wants you to see Conservative leader Erin O’Toole compared to how he would like you to see him. This clip is from a video that was posted by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland accusing O’Toole of planning to privatize healthcare.
Clip of Erin O’Toole: If we want to see that innovation, we have to find public-private synergies-
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And you can hear that he’s making a nod in that direction. Now that ended abruptly. Let’s hear what the rest of that sentence was:
Clip of Erin O’Toole: -And make sure that universal access remains paramount. And I actually praised what Brad Wall did with respect to diagnostic imaging because he’s actually making sure that wait times for everyone go down as a result of the investment by the private sector to make sure there are more diagnostic imaging issued.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So far in this campaign, O’Toole has managed to come across more as the nerdy policy guy than as the right wing zealot the Liberals would like to paint him as. And it is very early, but the polls are reflecting this with the Conservative Party inching up right into a clearly tight race with the Liberals. So what needs to happen next for O’Toole’s Conservatives to take that lead and perhaps finish this thing off? Can he control his base long enough? Do the Liberals have some ammunition they haven’t used yet? How real is this initial conservative bump? And will it continue when the going gets tough and probably dirty? Today the second in a series of episodes looking at the leaders with the chance to become Prime Minister and what it will take to get them there.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Stephen Maher is a writer, a political commentator, and a contributing editor at Maclean’s. Hey, Stephen.
Stephen Maher: Hello!
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why don’t we start with this question heading into this campaign? What was the public perception of Conservative leader Erin O’Toole?
Stephen Maher: He did not have much of a public perception. People who are in the political business sometimes forget how little these people penetrate the public mind because we’re looking at them all the time. So I would guess I haven’t seen numbers on this that his name recognition figures were poor. A lot of people because his first name can be a woman’s name weren’t sure whether he’s a man or a woman. He really struggled, was struggling, I think, to be able to connect with Canadians more so even than a normal new opposition leader, because during a pandemic for much of the time, Parliament was closed and he was not able to be on the TV news in the way that previous opposition leaders manage to get.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How do Liberal parties typically try to define conservative leaders? And have they been doing that with Mr O’Toole?
Stephen Maher: So since I’ve been covering federal politics close up, the Liberals have been warning that the Conservatives have a hidden agenda there in League with the Republicans in the United States, that they have secret malevolent plans to privatize everything, to restrict women’s abortion rights, to let social Conservatives run the country, put Canadian foreign policy in League with the American right wing warmongers. So that’s the sort of frame the Liberals have imposed first on Stephen Harper and then on Andrew Scheer.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Have they been trying to do that with O’Toole and how has it worked?
Stephen Maher: So I think that they are trying to do that, and I don’t know that it’s working as effectively as they hope. The problem for them, I think, is that a tool appears to be a more progressive character than Andrew here. The last conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, was personally a socially conservative person, and he was unable in the course of the last election to respond in even a really elemental way to questions about how that would influence his thinking on matters like particular abortion, but also questions around equality for LGBTQ people. So O’Toole is not like that.
The other big issue that was, I think, very difficult for conservative candidates in Quebec, in Ontario and Atlanta, Canada. Last time, likely also British Columbia was Andrew Scheer’s climate plan. It’s probably a mistake to even call it a plan. It was a PR campaign. There were no real targets. There were no measures to reduce emissions on that as well. O’Toole has introduced a plan that, whatever its merits, does appear to at least be a plan. So on the two things that were so difficult for sure, O’Toole is taking out has staked out different positions, more moderate. I would describe them as kind of traditional blue Tory, Ontario Progressive Conservative positions. If he’s aiming to be a sort of Brian Mulroney, Bill Davis kind of figure ideologically, that is, then that makes him a different sort of person for the Liberals to attack. And as the campaign began, they seem to want to be using their old attacks on O’Toole, and it’s not clear that that was working.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m hoping you can walk us through an example of that, which I think is a really good one, you described it in your column, but people who are not deeply invested in the Twitter version of politics may not have paid that much attention to it. But can you sort of explain what happened with Chrystia Freeland trying to define a tool on health care?
Stephen Maher: Yeah. So last Sunday, Chrystia Freeland was opening her campaign headquarters in University Rosedale, if I’m not mistaken, and she gave a speech that was, to use a McLuhan phrase, ‘hot’. She was very intense. And she was saying, I can’t believe Erin O’Toole. If the Tories have been in charge, I wake up with a cold sweat thinking about how they would have managed this pandemic. And you wouldn’t believe he actually said that he wants to privatize health care. And she mentioned that she had put a video on Twitter. The video that she put on Twitter was from July 2020 from a conservative leadership forum when O’Toole was still seeking the leadership and he was asked about increasing the role of private providers in the healthcare system, he said, yes, I’m in favour of essentially experimentation, innovation, but maintaining universal access. So when the Liberals put this online, they left that part out. They left out the part where he said, “making universal access paramount”. So it remains to be seen. And the signals from the polls are not entirely clear as to whether this was really a failure for the Liberals.
But what happened next was the Twitter said that the edits were misleading and they attached a notice to Freeland’s tweet. So when Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters in Halifax, he was forced on to his back foot. He was forced to defend this apparently misleading attack, this misleading video, and the Liberals appear to be on the defensive. Now, subsequently, he kind of counter attack, and he’s trying to go after O’Toole for a policy on allowing the provinces greater freedom to experiment with private services. That it’s a complicated kind of business, but it may actually be a winning issue for the Liberals, regardless of the merits of the argument, just because they can plant a seed of doubt in people’s minds about Medicare. So that’s one of the key battleground that we’re going to see, I think, as this election proceeds. Again, setting aside the merits of the argument, who is better able to convince Canadians that they can be trusted to safeguard the public health system?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: In terms of that video, and the full version of the video, which Freeland posted later in which obviously has been circulating an attempt to clear up anything that’s misleading. One of the things that I wanted to ask you about from it because it’s pertinent to the way you wrote about O’Toole is beyond him simply saying, we’d like to innovate and we want system that can maintain universal access. He also gets really wonky, right? He references a Supreme Court decision and move by a Premier. And it’s clear that he’s deep into this stuff and for a leader that, as we mentioned earlier, has kind of struggled to define himself because nobody’s really known him, is that an effective persona for him going forward for lack of a better term?
Stephen Maher: Oh, I think it is. You look at the way O’Toole started this campaign who put out a very detailed policy book, which is not what parties usually do at the beginning of an election campaign. He appears to be prepared to go on at length about all kinds of policy. And the philosophy behind this or the strategic approach that the conservative are taking, I think, is to put out so much detailed stuff and have him talk about it so that it’s not possible for the Liberals to project policies on him that he may not hold. He’s trying to define himself. And I believe that his personal capacity to blather on in detail about what he would do if he would run the country, that that’s a kind of strength for him. And it’s going to be interesting in the debate to see how he manages against Trudeau, who’s not necessarily quite as detailed-oriented guy. I mean, obviously, he’s been running a country since 2015, so he should know its files. But we’re going to see two contrasting styles here, I think, where O’Toole is ready to get into the weeds on policy in a way that Trudeau may not be. There’s a strategy here for O’Toole to come across as a kind of bland but smiling guy with a bunch of nerdy plans for how he wants to run the country.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: As we go forward in the campaign, one of the things I think a lot of people have talked about, and certainly when we spoke to Justin Ling yesterday about the conscience rights issue is how the Liberals and other parties too will try to use the hard right conservative base to define O’Toole. And what does he need to do publicly to make those attacks less toothy, to kind of distance himself from his base without pissing them off so much that it becomes a campaign issue. You know, Justin said it was a really tough line to walk. I’m wondering what you think in terms of the Tory strategy right now and trying to do that.
Stephen Maher: If I had to bet right now, I would say that they will not be able to do it. That is not yet written. So something that happened when Andrew Scheer was Conservative Party leader is that the social Conservatives were able to take over many more riding associations with his blessings. So the Conservative caucus, as it is currently constituted, has more social Conservatives than non social Conservatives. I believe the Liberals will find ways to highlight that after Labour Day, when more Canadians are tuned in. You know, people are still at the cottages, they’re camping. They’re not really engaged in this election. You can bet that the Liberals have all kinds of opposition research on all of these candidates who hold social conservative views. The relationship between O’Toole and these people seems a bit odd because he is not one of them, but he has kind of made a deal with them.
Now, Stephen Harper was able to manage that really effectively over the years. His opponents would say that he would send dog whistles, meaning messages that only the so-cons could hear, but he was able to sort of straddle that to play with the culture war elements the social Conservatives like in a way that might irritate his opponents, but that normal Canadians might not notice. So the question, I think, is going to be a defining question over the end of the campaign is whether O’Toole is able to handle that stuff cleverly. And whether the Liberals are able to basically bring it to him in the way that they need to do if they want to win, they need to say, this guy is unacceptable. He is not going to rein in his social Conservatives if I had to bet. I think that’s going to be very difficult for O’Toole to get through that and win this election. But we don’t know until it happens.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, I mean, he’s made up a lot of ground really quickly, at least in terms of the polls that we’re seeing now. But to your point, how real are these polls right now who’s actually in there having made up their mind? And do they really matter until we’re a couple of weeks out, like, obviously, this is a positive sign for him. But, you know, how confident should he be in those polls?
Stephen Maher: Yeah, not very confident. It is early. People are not paying attention. The one thing that where it really helps him, though, I think, is that people who are writing him off, particularly Conservatives who are thinking, oh, this guy, we don’t really like him, he’s a loser. They are now going to be looking at this and saying, hey, well, maybe he’s going to be Prime Minister and we can get rid of Justin Trudeau. You know, the Scheer supporters, both on those two issues that I mentioned earlier, the social conservative issues and the environment versus resource extraction. They really don’t love a tool. They think he’s too much of a red Tory. They don’t like this carbon, that he’s accepted the idea that there should be some kind of carbon tax.
On the other hand, they would rather have him than Trudeau. So that sort of interplay between particularly Westerners and O’Toole is going to be interesting as we go along. Given the prospect of getting rid of Trudeau and getting a Tory in there, you have to think that they’re going to basically be quiet and not hamstring him as he goes along. But again, that’s one of those things. It’s not supposed to be easy to win an election. So he’s going to have to demonstrate that he can manage those people without having a caucus rebellion in the middle of a campaign. So his position is much better for having a little bump in the polls. But that little bump in the polls, we should not take that to mean that he’s sure to win the election.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: This might seem like a dumb question, and I don’t know if anybody even has the answer to it. But to those people, you mentioned the social conservative side of the party, do they know that they actually need someone like O’Toole to have a real shot at governing?
Stephen Maher: Now, some of them certainly do. There was a story maybe about a month ago about a guy named Steve Outhouse who was a staffer in the Harper government who led Leslyn Lewis’ unsuccessful leadership campaign. But did a great job and got a lot of votes, and people were impressed by that. So O’Toole brought him on board into his office, and at the same time, he was moonlighting organizing riding level leadership campaigns for socially conservative candidates. So you have this kind of looks like they kind of reach a deal, right? That Outhouse would be free to sort of continue to expand the social conservative takeover of the caucus. And in return, the so-cons would line up in support of a O’Toole. So it’s hard to know how it’s all going to work out, but they do not. They might be taking over the party, but it’s hard to imagine them taking over the country.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Last question I want to ask you about is what needs to happen for O’Toole going forward for this to carry past Labour Day, especially in terms of the pandemic and the relationship between how much Canada and particularly provinces are struggling with it, because I’m fascinated by as this fourth wave rises and things look a little worse in the fall, who will get the blame for that? On the one hand, Trudeau is the one that called the election. On the other hand, we haven’t heard from two of the most prominent conservative premieres for a while as their provinces have started to struggle with COVID again. And which of those could positively or negatively affect O’Toole’s chances?
Stephen Maher: Yeah, it’s interesting. Some Liberals think that Trudeau made a mistake in not going harder after Scott Moe, when Moe interjected into the campaign on the question of private delivery of MRIs in Saskatchewan. They need to motivate people. They need Trudeau to mix it up. And you look at Doug Ford and especially Jason Kenney and their poll numbers, and you got to think that Trudeau is going to be tempted to draw Canadians attention to these guys and to say we need a Liberal government because otherwise these right wing characters are going to wreck our health care system and look what a lousy job they did it during the pandemic. It’s likely Trudeau has ammo that he hasn’t used yet. These people probably know what they’re doing the people running Trudeau’s campaign, and they’re probably saving their ammo for when they use it. So I wouldn’t count them out, but I don’t think they’re where they want it to be. And it’s not clear to me how events like a fourth wave will help or harm them. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. I think this election feels like it’s just about to get started. The outcome is not clear to me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time to go through this with us.
Stephen Maher: What a pleasure for me. Thank you.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Stephen Maher, Contributing editor with Maclean’s. That was The Big Story, for more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Again, you can find all our episodes, including the political ones, right there. You can talk to us at @TheBigStoryFPN on Twitter. You can email us, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!], and you can find us in any podcast player if you search us in Google or if you ask your smart speaker to play The Big Story Podcast.
Stefanie Phillips is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Joseph Fish are our associate producers, and I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. Enjoy one of the last weekends of this summer, and we’ll talk Monday.
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