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With a New Leader, Conservatives Look to Unseat Justin Trudeau

2020-08-28 21:59:43

In keeping with the general upheaval that has marked this year, the Conservative Party of Canada announced its new leader at an unusual time: in the middle of the United States’ presidential nominating conventions.

Erin O’Toole, the winner of the race to lead Canada’s Conservatives, delivered his victory speech in Ottawa well after 1 a.m. Eastern time Monday, distancing himself from social conservatives like the former leader of the party, Andrew Scheer, and indirectly addressing the perception that his party is dominated by white men.

Mr. O’Toole, who is from Ontario, offered shout-outs to Indigenous Canadians, people who are “Black, white, brown or from any race or creed,” union members, L.G.B.T.Q. Canadians and people who “joined the Canadian family five weeks ago or five generations ago.”

One broad theme common to both the Conservatives and experts I spoke with is that attacking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau based on his ethical lapses — including the WE Charity affair — is probably not a path for attracting new voters in the next election, even if it firms up the support within the party’s base.

“I would argue, and actually some polling has shown this, that Liberals for the most part think that is not a big deal,” said Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “And people who don’t like the Liberals think it’s horrendous.”

Ken Boessenkool, a prominent Conservative in Calgary who advised Stephen Harper, the former prime minister, said the WE scandal could raise Mr. O’Toole’s profile.

“People are going: Wow, these guys are really messing up, I wonder what the alternative looks like,” he said. “So I think it just improves the environment into which the leader of the Conservatives was chosen.”

But capitalizing on that, particularly in vote-rich Ontario, Mr. Boessenkool said, will require some shifts in the Conservatives’ platform.

“There’s going to have to be a reckoning in the party on climate change,” he said.

While the Conservatives presented a carbon plan during the last election, Mr. Boessenkool said that “if you look at the polling, no one believes we had a credible climate change program.”

He also cautioned against calling for restraint and cuts as a way to deal with the bloated federal debt and deficit created by responding to the coronavirus pandemic with widely popular economic support programs.

“How do you remain a fiscal conservative in this world?” Mr. Boessenkool asked. “We’ll need to be sensible and sensitive to education, child care and the ability of women to return to work.”

Before politics, Mr. O’Toole was a helicopter navigator in the armed forces and then a lawyer at several blue-chip firms as well as in-house counsel at Procter & Gamble’s Canadian subsidiary.

During his leadership campaign, he pitched himself as a “true blue,” or hard-right-leaning, Conservative, without being too specific about policies. But his record in politics shows that he’s from the moderate side of his party.

During his debut news conference as leader, Mr. Toole moved to distance himself from the party’s social conservatives on issues like abortion.

That tack, Professor Marland said, may prove critical to expanding the party’s support in Eastern Canada and among women.

“I’m absolutely convinced that the Conservative leader is going to have to tackle social issues in a much stronger way than has been the case in the past,” he said. “Historically, this has been a problem for parties of the right.”

The contest to elect a new Conservative leader brought with it speculation that Mr. Trudeau’s government might fall shortly after it starts a new session of Parliament on Sept. 23 with a throne speech.

My observation from reporting on Canadian politics long enough to have some of my articles cited by historians is that predictions about snap elections are generally as about as reliable as newspaper horoscopes.

Regardless, a longer lead time to a vote may benefit Mr. O’Toole and his effort to expand the Conservatives beyond their base.


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