Newly elected Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leader Erin O’Toole, MP for Durham and former Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, released a video on Labour Day announcing his new “Canada First” policy with the broad statement “It’s time for economic policy that puts Canadian workers first.”
While specifically targeting Canada’s ravaged auto, energy and forestry sectors, the policy should, on the surface at least, enjoy wide appeal in a devastated economy suffering 10.2 percent unemployment and forty years of wage stagnation.
Speaking from Parliament Hill, O’Toole vowed to fight for Canadian workers ““Too many people are living on the brink, living in quiet desperation… Under my leadership Conservatives will introduce a “Canada First” economic strategy. One that doesn’t cater to elites and special interests, but fights for working Canadians. I believe that GDP growth alone is not the be-all-end-all of politics. The goal of economic policy should be more than just wealth creation, it should be solidarity and the wellness of families – and includes higher wages.””
This could have come from the NDP playbook.
Designed to engage those workers disenfranchised by the export of manufacturing jobs offshore to Asia, and the victims of five years of Prime Minster Trudeau’s war upon the energy sector, most would find it difficult to disagree with more jobs and higher wages.
O’Toole, who served previously as the Conservative Foreign Affairs Critic and represents a riding of unemployed auto-workers, was critical of existing trade deals and the sourcing of cheap labour offshore at the expense of Canadian workers, “Part of the problem is big government, one that signs bad trade deals with the US and countries like China, or that kills entire industries by saying they’re going to phase out the energy sector. But part of the problem is big business, corporate and financial power brokers who care more about their shareholders than their employees. They love trade deals with China that allow them to access cheap labour.”
Most unemployed Canadian workers would probably agree.
Progressives however, particularly those idealists who embrace Trudeau’s post-national Canada globalized vision, may view O’Toole’s economic pragmatism as Neolithic protectionism.
What about the environment?
O’Toole has yet to fully articulate an environmental policy. His Natural Environment platform includes “measures an O’Toole government will take to protect our environment…
- Putting a major focus on conservation
- Ending the practice of exempting Liberal-favoured projects from environmental rules
- Harnessing the enthusiasm of Canada’s outdoor community
- Taking action to protect the southern working landscape
- Providing innovation incentives for the development and deployment of technologies.”
His Climate Change platform recognizes that, “Climate Change is a global problem, that requires a global solution” and states, “The world will still be using oil and natural gas for a long time. The question is whether they will come from free countries like Canada with strong environmental protections, or dictatorships with no environmental protections or respect for human rights…” It goes on to pledge elimination of Trudeau’s carbon tax, and says, “If provinces want to use market mechanisms, other forms of carbon pricing, or regulatory measures, that is up to them.”
O’Toole has also put forward an “Action Plan for Alberta and the West”. This provides the best glimpse of his environmental policy so far. It includes some paradigm-shift policy changes which may also be difficult for environmentally concerned voters:
- Repeal of Bill C-69 (An Act to enact the Impact Assessment Act and the Canadian Energy Regulator Act, to amend the Navigation Protection Act)
- Pass a National Strategic Pipelines Act (which would empower governments to approve pipeline developments regardless of environmental concerns)
- Scrap Bill C-48 (Oil Tanker Moratorium Act)
- Implement a federal LNG export strategy.
The fact is, O’Toole is trapped politically between a western rock and an eastern hard place, especially on environmental issues.
During the last election Conservatives (under Andrew Scheer) won the popular vote, but due to the plurality voting system, emerged with fewer seats than the Liberals, the majority of which are in the west. Of 121 Conservative seats won, only 50 are east of Manitoba.
The reality of the existing plurality system is that Ontario (121 ridings) and Quebec (78 ridings) can determine who wins an election, when aligned politically. With only 338 ridings across the country, a plurality of 199 seats invalidates the other eight provinces and three territories (with only 139 seats combined).
In order to win the next election, O’Toole will have to attract voters in Ontario and Quebec, while retaining seats in the west… a tough juggling act for anyone.
Consequently, O’Toole faces the difficult task of crafting a hybrid platform that appeases both western conservatives – who are concerned about protecting the resource sector, regional issues, and the lack of proportional representation in Ottawa – and progressive voters in the east who are focused more upon issues such as inclusivity and the environment.
His platform will also have to capture new immigrants. A 2019 CBC poll showed that immigrants overwhelmingly support Trudeau and the Liberals, “Forty-five per cent of new Canadians polled say they voted for the Liberals in 2015, and 39 per cent say they currently intend to vote for the party in 2019.” At current levels, that represents an influx of 141,000 to 162,000 new Liberal voters annually to Canada, most in Toronto and Montreal.
Substantial wins in the east however, could shift the current west-centric focus of the party, re-orient Prime Minister O’Toole’s priorities eastward, and leave westerners in the same marginalized position that they are in today.
O’Toole’s position is further complicated by Alberta-based Wexit Canada, recently renamed the Maverick Party.
Birthed in the climate of western disappointment following the re-election of the Trudeau government in 2019, the Wexit mission statement may be alluring to disgruntled westerners, “To achieve independence and a brighter future for western Canadians through constitutional reformation, or by the creation of an independent nation.” The Maverick Party is led by former Conservative MP and Secretary of State Jay Hill, and had promised to run 104 candidates in the next federal election. With Hill at the helm, the party offers a viable alternative for western Conservatives, and looms as a significant threat to the CPC over the interior plains and western cordillera.
O’Toole moderates his positions on trade and the environment only at the risk of alienating his power base in the west. In addition, O’Toole is opposed to the electoral reform at the heart of western alienation. Hill supports electoral reform and a proportional voting system.
Hill is a western leader, O’Toole is not.
Any Conservative losses could be Maverick gains.
Disunity now threatens not only the future of the CPC, but Confederation itself. O’Toole’s unenviable challenge will be to unite the many disparate, self-interested parties within the national political mosaic into a cohesive voting block with national focus.
In order to form the next government, O’Toole may be forced to reconsider his commitment to not move to the middle…and put the “Progressive” back into “Conservative”.