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.

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

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.

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.

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"Conservative" parties wold wide are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Worldwide the tides of history and the unstoppable climate disasters are wreaking so much real damage to the old "certainties" that the core of conservatism, nostalgic longing for old caste system stability, is being blown to smithereens by radical insurgencies, by hordes of displaced humanity, by the inexorable forces of nature man has de-stabilized for chimerical "profits".

Conservatism, Red Tory or febrile "Nativism" is looking backward - but not far enough. It has lost the ability to see or understand the truths of evolution - if humans ever possessed that ability.

How blind do you have to be to think O'Toole has changed his stripes? His hidden agenda on abortion rights allowing backbenchers to put forth bills banning abortions and women's rights. Some 70 candidates are funded by anti-abortion groups. This is just one instance of his hidden agenda. Wake up! He's a HarperCon because Harper's IDU still controls the party.

So O'Toole is bringing us back to "Liberal, Tory, Same Old Story".
But the crazies won't just go away, in part because the American money won't go away. Whether it's right wing "think tanks", social media, or right wing religion, there are US rightwing billionaires bankrolling plenty of propaganda which is creating these weird echo chamber communities. I have family members who have been sucked in by their churches . . .

O’Toole’s sworn objective to his party members (not necessarily to conservative-minded citizens, many of whom do not vote CPC ) is to “take back Canada, to “win power” for the Conservative party, an oath he proclaimed only a second after appealing to decidedly non-conservative voters in a single-sentence platitude uttered at the end of his acceptance speech as new party leader. He surprised members again at the CPC policy convention by proposing to end climate-change denial, a party position that’s only gotten louder and sharper ever since founder Stephen Harper abrogated the Kyoto Accord and tried to force diluted bitumen pipelines west, south and east only to be defeated before his government could get it done. O’Toole’s proposal was rejected by a majority of delegates, but that’s only one of the reasons not to trust his appeal to moderate centre-right voters—or is it even his real intent.

The new CPC leader well knows his party’s problem, having been a cabinet minister when the nine-year HarperCon regime was defeated by the resurrected Liberals In 2015, having been bumped off early during a thirteen-ballot slug-fest between a gaggle of embarrassingly extreme leadership pretenders, and twice re-elected to the caucus of the Loyal Opposition before winning leadership from among a smaller field only half composed of mortifying, far-right candidates. A general trend seemed to have attended the CPC’s from its creation in 2003, right up to a few months ago when it polled its lowest ever; Harper’s sole majority and, perhaps, O’Toole’s improving campaign numbers look like anomalies in the party’s 18-year retrospective. O’Toole seems aware that CPC popularity cannot be sweetened for middle-of-the-road Canadians by holding a steady, damn-the-torpedoes course of hare-pelt neo-rightism—and certainly not by sharpening positions further right still. The question for voters is whether O’Toole’s more moderate rhetoric is meant to temper his party’s more incendiary sloganeering or persuade moderate voters to vote a CPC merely more moderate-looking. They’re not the same thing and we don’t know O’Toole well enough to tell if he’ll borrow but one cynicism from the centre: campaign on (or facing the distant) left but govern on the (far) right.

We may assume O’Toole recognizes that by peddling extremism to a receptive faction, the CPC has become too extreme for most Canadians to vote for; and one-third of voters—which polls put the CPC well below before campaigning season began— doesn’t win government for the right, all potential partners being more likely to support a centre-left alliance in a hung parliament. Of course stump policy proposals for this election will try to make nice with the many moderates and erstwhile CPCers who’ve been repelled by the party’s far-right barking—it’s as reliable as campaigning party leaders always saying they intend to form the next government. O’Toole probably also has a longer vision that he can’t very well ever mention outright, even when campaigning season’s over: that the far right faction, recruited and trained with red-meat, the CPC’s most reliable voters, has to go or the party won’t win any more elections; and, even more unpalatable, the party will have to concede this and maybe a few more elections to purge itself sufficiently so moderates will vote for it.

The CPC’s critical point for deciding which way to go is now—at least for the top brass. The simple fact is that the far-right faction rightly insists it’s essential to winning—which is correct only as far as it goes: it’s true that no party struggling to stay in its political weight class can afford to offend such a substantial minority. But this faction hasn’t quite accepted that, with it, the CPC hasn’t the democratic heft to win government. Furthermore, for this faction, second- or third-party status isn’t an option and its leader fails to win government under pain of immediate dismissal. It is not ready to decide on a new path.

O’Toole’s moderate talk might tempt the SoCon/libertarians’ ire, but daring them to take electoral exception can hardly be expected to pay dividends in this campaign. Even if he has to forgo a CPC win, he can be assured moderates —both erstwhile and prospective first-time CPC voters—will approve (whether they vote CPC this time is another question). And they’ll especially approve if the extremist faction reacts as reactionaries predictably would (to both their new leader’s moderate tone and probable failure to produce a CPC victory in three weeks). That of course would be perceived as a wider fissure—perhaps wide enough to shoehorn in enough new moderates in time for 2025 (or sooner), render the immoderate faction less essential, and improve odds of a party win someday. This is to presume O’Toole wants to save the CPC. I suspect that’s his starting point.

Until such time as the extreme faction of the CPC is extirpated and moderates are invited in (not just ‘back in’—many ProgCons never considered the CPC to be a conservative party nor ever voted for it)—O’Toole’s sweet talk should not be trusted—ironically, even if he himself can be trusted to be a sincere reformer: as long’s the extreme faction holds any sway in the CPC, well laid plans can go awry. Just look at the tRumpublican mess down south. One thing you can say about O’Toole is that he doesn’t sound totally cowed by far-right rural voters like Republican politicians are—but that’s still not a reason to throw in whole-hog with his pretty—and pretty unconservative — proposals. Too much is up in the air yet.

If indeed O’Toole is entertaining the long view for his party, he might be disappointed not only by bleeding support to the People’s Party, the schismatic scion on the right (currently an ascending fringe), but also to a new, centre-right party (maybe called “The New Conservative Party” or NCP). I’m convinced and O'Toole is doubtless aware that a new, moderate conservative party would take votes from both the CPC, the Liberals, and even some Dippers, maybe enough to contend for the top job. At least it’s another way to get rid of the worst partisan faction to hit Canada for generations.

Whether O’Toole has a contingency if he gets fired from the CPC, like Maxime Bernier, one where he starts a moderate conservative party to contend with both the PPC and CPC is a matter of pure conjecture. But there are only so many ways to present voters with a moderate centre-right party. It’s probably best an irredeemable CPC needs to go extinct, but we can’t be sure if that’s O’Toole plan yet, or if he’ll resort to winking alt-right euphemism to preserve as many of their votes as he can, or what he might be saying in private to hasten the departure of far-rightists to the PPC in order they abandon the CPC to him. Much depends on this election. He has a number of ways to play it.

In other words, we haven’t got a inkling whether O’Toole’s moderate tone is trustworthy. It might not be and, in some scenarios, it doesn’t have to be.

Finally, besides his dilemma and apparent intention to do something about it, besides his apparent sincerity or possible perfidy, a potential CPC win in three weeks would likely be a minority —which means O'Toole would have the only excuse he’d need to renege on his moderate promises and assuage SoCon concerns if he thinks it best. I’m not saying that means he’s likely untrustworthy, just that it’s another reason why voters shouldn’t trust his sweet-sounding rhetoric. There are several ways for him to jump and we don’t know which or why yet.

PS: the HarperCons were not “ultra-conservatives”—nor even conservatives at all, except by name.

PPS: Voting for some a party other than the NDP is not “an anathema to union members.” In fact, union members vote in much the same way as the general electorate does. In the West, many, if not most, union resource workers switched to Reform (thence Alliance and CPC) decades ago over the long-gun registry and the NDP’s environmentalist faction. Just sayin’...

Note that Flora Macdonald voted NDP:

DM: Are you still a Conservative?
FM: I’m still a Progressive Conservative. There are only a few of us left: Joe Clark, Lowell Murray. We get together from time to time.

DM: So how do you vote now?
FM: I vote NDP. *** Marion Dewar and I often appeared together and she’d bring her son, Paul. I’ve always known him and so, I’ve always supported him (Paul Dewar is the NDP MP for Ms. MacDonald’s riding.)