As this year’s federal election finishes its crucial third week, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s party continues its surprising, albeit steady, rise in the polls, attracting strong support in almost every region of the country.
Two weeks ago, he entered this campaign as the unmistakable underdog, with expectations of his electoral prospects so low that some respected pollsters even publicly mused his shot at becoming prime minister was next to impossible.
But as the age-old political adage goes: “Campaigns matter.” Approaching its midpoint, this campaign’s several twists and turns have mostly benefited O’Toole, as he leads a highly professionalized, modern, and disciplined campaign.
But one factor that has played a critical role in O’Toole’s early and indisputable momentum has been his unapologetic embrace of traditional “progressive conservatism” — a brand of Canadian conservatism that dominated federal politics from our nation’s founding in 1867 until 1993 when the moderate Progressive Conservatives fragmented into regional parties based in Western Canada and Quebec.
While he cynically positioned himself as a “true blue” conservative in his successful bid for the Conservative Party’s leadership in 2020, O’Toole immediately pivoted to embrace a strain of “progressive conservatism” we have not witnessed on the federal scene since 2003 when the old PC Party merged with the Reform/Canadian Alliance Party to form the Conservative Party of Canada.
On the night he unexpectedly won his party’s leadership, O’Toole stunned political observers in his victory speech when he made a direct appeal to Indigenous, LGBTQ, and racialized Canadians to see themselves reflected in his party. O’Toole’s speech that night was remarkable because it was one that would have never been delivered by either of his predecessors, Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper.
Over the past year, O’Toole has embraced Red Toryism in several not-so-subtle ways, including through the release of a 2020 Labour Day video message that appealed to unionized workers. Since the election campaign kicked off on Aug.15, he has aggressively courted the centrist and centre-left voters who made Justin Trudeau prime minister in 2015 and 2019.
It’s a shrewd strategy that has so far paid obvious political dividends to the underestimated Conservative leader and his national campaign. This has been no more apparent than in seat-rich Ontario where the party is now statistically tied with Trudeau’s Liberals in many polls — a striking reversal from a mere six weeks ago when many polls showed O’Toole’s party trailing the Liberal Party in Ontario by jaw-dropping double-digit margins.
While much of his party and caucus remain wed to the brand of ultra-conservatism offered by Harper and Scheer over the past 18 years, O’Toole quickly recognized today’s Conservative Party must assemble a new voter coalition if it’s to dislodge Trudeau’s Liberals and form a majority government.
Since winning the leadership, O’Toole has worked fearlessly to soften the several jagged edges that had come to characterize his party since its inception. He has also moved to shed the many barnacles that have continually weighed the party down among crucial swing voters.
The direction in which @erinotoole has steered the party in this campaign points to a return to the brand of Red Toryism that dominated the old PC Party for almost 140 years, writes @andrewaperez. #elxn44 #cdnpoli
Gone are the party’s previous dog whistles on the niqab and the “barbaric cultural practices tip line.” Nor have Conservatives resorted to their once-obsessive refrain on “getting tough on crime” or their penchant throughout the Harper era to deliberately and dishonestly characterize carbon pricing as a “tax grab.”
O’Toole now supports a price on carbon and speaks enthusiastically about a “compassionate plan” to tackle the opioid crisis, and the need to treat drug addiction as a health, not a criminal, issue. He’s even made a Mental Health Action Plan a key plank in his five-point “Recovery Plan.”
Add to that his decision to aggressively court private-sector union members, many of whom have traditionally supported the NDP. Last week, O’Toole put meat on the bones in his pleas for worker support when he pledged a Conservative government would change the law so that when a company goes bankrupt or is restructured, workers do not lose their pension benefits.
The next day, O’Toole promised his government would force large federally regulated businesses to appoint at least one worker representative to their boards of directors — a nod to European-style labour policy aimed at garnering votes from unionized workers. These sensible, arguably left-leaning, policies mark new ideological ground for a party that was a complete anathema to union members and organized labour for the better part of the past 20 years.
The carefully curated image O’Toole’s Conservatives are presenting on television and online also signals a new, more progressive direction for the party. Conservative firebrands like deputy leader Candice Bergen and high-profile Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre no longer appear to represent the party on major TV networks covering the campaign.
Instead, neophyte Eric Duncan — the party’s first openly gay MP and a rising star with impeccable Red Tory credentials — delivers O’Toole’s progressive message day after day on networks like CBC and CTV News viewed by millions of Canadians.
Whether it’s on the opioid crisis, LGBTQ rights, carbon pricing, or the party’s enlightened labour policies, Duncan has proven very effective in selling the Conservatives’ new policies while projecting a sunny disposition that is emblematic of a forward-looking “progressive conservatism.”
While critics will credibly argue today’s Conservative Party remains wed to many of the regressive policies and cynical manoeuvres reminiscent of the Harper era, the direction in which O’Toole has steered the party in this campaign points to a return to the brand of Red Toryism that dominated the old PC Party for almost 140 years. Red Tories enjoyed significant influence in that party for decades — so much so that virtually all its leaders, from John A. Macdonald to Peter MacKay, were labelled Red Tories.
Since our nation’s founding, the appeal of moderate “progressive conservatism” across Canada has been indisputable, particularly in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. While the Liberal Party governed for almost 70 years of the 20th century, when Canadians inevitably grew tired of Liberal governments, they replaced them with Progressive Conservatives — another brokerage party that was not characterized by an ideological agenda.
The PC Party, unlike its successor the Conservative Party, included strong progressive elements from across the country. If they were alive today, Red Tory luminaries like former PC leader Robert Stanfield and former external affairs minister Flora MacDonald would likely feel very comfortable in Trudeau’s centre-left Liberal Party — a testament to how progressive many Tories were throughout the 20th century.
It was Joe Clark’s minority PC government and MacDonald that boldly welcomed more than 60,000 Vietnamese boat people to Canada’s shores in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. And it was Brian Mulroney who played an inspired role on the international stage aggressively pushing for an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa, while almost tripling Canadian immigration levels from those enjoyed under Pierre Trudeau’s governments.
Mulroney’s PC caucus was so diverse that it included elements that were unabashedly environmentalist and pro-union, particularly in Quebec where several MPs held strong Quebec-nationalist leanings. These not insignificant progressive elements within the caucus and party led to government policies that were genuinely representative of the broader interests of the country. The result was two back-to-back majority mandates for Mulroney’s PCs.
The fact this iteration of the Conservative Party has only managed to form one majority government since its creation in 2003 is evidence that its leadership has not been representative of the country’s diverse interests until very recently.
O’Toole’s refreshing, sensible leadership may yet serve as an antidote to the Conservative Party’s travails over the better part of the past two decades in attracting support from a broad cross-section of Canadians. At their core, many Canadians are Red Tories who look to support parties and leaders that are fiscally prudent, pragmatic, and socially progressive.
This progressive strain of conservatism continues to enjoy substantial appeal in seat-rich Ontario and places like Nova Scotia, where PC Leader Tim Houston recently won a surprise majority government after outflanking the provincial Liberal government on its progressive wing.
Early indicators from this campaign suggest O’Toole is resonating with Red Tory voters who have not been closely aligned with his party since its inception. In the campaign’s vital second half, O’Toole’s central challenge will be to demonstrate to Canadians his Red Toryism is authentic and not a mere vote-getting ploy.
If he can establish credibility on this front, and whip much of his more conservative caucus into submission, then O’Toole’s prospects for a come-from-behind victory on Sept. 20 will be clearer than anyone could have imagined a mere month ago.
Andrew Perez is a Toronto-based public affairs professional whose work includes government relations. Over the past decade, he has worked in a variety of public- and private-sector environments advising senior leaders on communication strategies in their interactions with governments and the media. Perez has volunteered on several political campaigns over the years for the federal and Ontario Liberal parties and remains politically active.
You can follow him on Twitter @andrewaperez.