The Conservative Leadership Race Matters

The Federal Conservatives will choose a new leader in August under difficult circumstances. The constraints imposed by the Covid-19 virus make it impossible for candidates to have the customary events with party members.

Covid-19, and more recently anti-racism events, have dominated people’s attention and made it hard for candidates to communicate their story via traditional media. The contenders need to maximize use of long-distance technologies in their efforts to woo voters.

The preferential ballots will be submitted by mail and results announced at an event lacking interpersonal dynamics and likely to be virtual. Each riding will have 100 points allocated based on the proportion of votes received.

Erin O’Toole is a lawyer with experience in the military, the private sector, and the government as Minister of Veterans Affairs. He has been elected three times to the GTA riding of Durham.

He is one of the leading contenders and the only one to have run in the previous contest that chose Andrew Scheer. He says he has been able to touch more people this time, using social media. It frees up time that would have been used travelling by plane.

The lengthy platform he released on Wednesday provides substantial policy positions that the target audience of Conservative Party members determine the areas of focus. Here are some highlights.

  1. Responding to climate change is important and Canada should be working to meet the Paris targets. Carbon tax is the wrong tool. Instead, focus on the 700 large emitters who create one third of Canada’s emissions. Use gas and nuclear power to replace coal. Export nuclear capabilities to help other countries reduce carbon emissions.
  2. Build pipelines: Cabinet should decide whether a pipeline is in the national interest. The subsequent regulatory process should determine how to do so safely, not whether the project should proceed. Eliminate the tanker ban and Bill 69 which leads to endless processes for proponents of new energy-related projects.
  3. Build the economy: 3% annual growth. Support technology innovation. Produce more of the energy we consume in Canada. Accelerate broadband buildout. Remove interprovincial trade barriers. Cut taxes and red tape. Add more trade liberalization agreements but seek self-sufficiency in critical PPE resources. Support entrepreneurs.
  4. Budgets: Do a better job of explaining the need for balance. Baby Boomers are retiring and paying less taxes, we need a sound balance sheet in case we have another Covid-like emergency. Proceed toward balance slowly until economic recovery is secured.
  5. A long section on Quebec caters to nationalist sentiment. It offers increased autonomy to Quebec in matters of immigration, limiting federal spending powers in provincial matters, avoiding conditionality on federal transfers.

    Provide rural internet and upgrade port infrastructure. These would apply equally to other provinces. Another section caters to Albertan concerns with the general theme of giving the oil and gas sector a chance to survive.
  6. Firearms: The real problem is guns smuggled in from the United States, so focus government efforts there. Current approach is capricious and ineffective and penalizes owners by retroactively making their firearms illegal. Have a robust process for screening, training, and licensing gun owners.
  7. Road and rail blockades: Make it explicitly illegal to obstruct public transport so police can take immediate action.
  8. Indigenous: Ensure clean drinking water, empower economic development, break logjam on land claim settlements. Would prefer dialog with elected representatives, but Supreme Court should decide. Support First Nations-led institutions.

This incomplete list gives a feel for his perspective. He is confident and coherent in responding to questions about the ideas. His French is competent but not wide-ranging.

There is a law and order flavour: dealing with blockades, prosecuting gun smugglers, tougher sentences for domestic violence.

He is not a social conservative but is proactively respectful of views different than his. He ducked a hypothetical question about how to respond to unacceptable homophobic comments by a caucus member.

He has few spending cuts: defunding CBC television and digital and stopping corporate handouts will not offset his new commitments for tax cuts and military upgrades. Achieving balance depends on achieving the 3% growth target plus big spending cuts to be found later.

The Quebec portion is remarkably deferential to provincial jurisdiction. This is consistent with traditional Conservative principals but may collide with some of his other ideas. If the Energy East pipeline proposal to bring oil to Saint John was renewed, Alberta could reasonably expect O’Toole to declare it in the national interest, but it would receive stout resistance in Quebec.

He says he would consult with Quebec first, and presumably with British Columbia for a renewed Northern Gateway project, but they would be difficult discussions.

O’Toole has brief experience as a Minister having been appointed in the last year of his first term in office. He seems even-tempered, making it difficult to be highly visible in opposition.

He thinks carefully about each of his ideas. He is not abrasive. There is zero chance of him pausing for 21 seconds before responding to a question. He comes across as comfortable in his own skin, a characteristic sometimes lacking in Andrew Scheer.

If he and Peter MacKay are the leading contenders, the outcome will likely turn on which of them gets the larger share of second choices from social conservatives whose first choice was one of the other two candidates.

The Liberals are currently doing what they know and like best—spending. Some day, Canada will have to deal with the resulting debt. The choice Conservatives make is more important than most Canadians realize.

More next week.


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