Federal politics just got real again now that the federal Conservatives have finally chosen a leader who will eventually square off against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party of Canada.
The choice of veteran MP Erin O’Toole is a major step up over his predecessor, the lackluster and hapless Andrew Scheer, whose unpopularity sat like an anvil atop the party’s carcass for quite some time.
However, O’Toole still faces major challenges ahead if he intends to present a realistic alternative for even those voters who may be souring on the prime minister and his party.
Chief among them is the thorny issue of social conservativism.
He openly courted and wooed the supporters of the two social conservative candidates in the party’s leadership race – Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan – and it was that bloc of supporters that allowed him to vault past first ballot leader Peter MacKay and win on the third ballot.
Between them, Lewis and Sloan took more than 35 per cent of the vote on the first ballot, which says a lot about where the Conservative party membership is right now. Essentially, about one third of them are out of step with a majority of public opinion on a number of issues, such as gay rights, abortion and sexual identity.
Despite being elected leader largely because of that social conservative support, O’Toole was quick to jettison any notion he shared that kind of philosophy.
His victory speech signaled he would try to turn the Conservatives into a big tent party once again. He voiced support for all races, all religions, all sexual orientations and all immigrants, recent ones or not. Oh, and he said he will march in a Pride parade.
He hit all the right notes, but will it be enough to beat the Liberals, particularly if social conservatives effect to the People’s Party, whose leader Maxine Bernier continues to chirp from the fringe sidelines?
In addition, O’Toole must also figure out a way to restore the party’s popularity where it counts the most: Greater Toronto and Quebec. The Conservatives may be strong in Alberta and the Prairies but there simply are not enough federal ridings in those provinces to make a difference come election time.
And just when will that election happen?
Rumors continue to circulate that Trudeau will try to trigger a snap election by having a confidence vote this fall. However, the NDP will almost certainly support his party so the numbers do not seem to support any notion of losing that vote (federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has told he does not think the Canadian public wants an election in the near future).
However, waiting a while before holding a vote will almost assuredly benefit O’Toole as it would allow him to build his public profile and put as much distance between himself and the dark times of Scheer’s leadership.
In any event, Trudeau will now be facing a more formidable foe than before.
Even as this prolonged pandemic undoubtedly lessens the public’s interest in overly partisan political behavior there may be some appetite out there for a more credible critique of the Trudeau government than we have seen up until now.
Things are getting real again in Ottawa, and that’s a good thing.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC
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