The Top Line
After hours of delays due to a voting count malfunction, early this morning the Official Opposition Conservatives elected Ontario MP and former Cabinet Minister Erin O’Toole as their new Leader. O’Toole won the leadership on the third ballot, beating his former Cabinet colleague Peter MacKay on the last ballot. Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis finished in third place, followed by Ontario MP Derek Sloan who was a distant fourth.
O’Toole’s election produces two firsts for the Conservative Party: its first Leader from outside Western Canada and its first Leader from the Progressive Conservative wing of the Party. That said, O’Toole’s campaign made a direct appeal to the Reform/Canadian Alliance wing of the Party.
O’Toole must now unite the Party under his leadership following a quite bruising campaign between himself and MacKay. That uniting will have to come quickly as the Conservatives need to get ready for an election widely expected within the next year. That will require staffing his Leader’s Office, building a campaign team, recruiting candidates and developing a platform.
A New Look Conservative Party?
It is no secret that in the last two elections the Conservatives have struggled to win seats in urban Ontario, much of Quebec, Atlantic Canada and the Vancouver area. To win an election – and most certainly for a majority – the Conservatives have to make inroads in these regions, and O’Toole frequently highlighted the fact he is an MP from the Greater Toronto Area during the campaign, a region that has not been kind to the Conservatives in the last two elections.
O’Toole positioned himself as a “true blue conservative” during the leadership race, appealing to the core base of Conservative Party support. However, to win a general election, O’Toole will need to expand his appeal to people who voted for other parties in the past two elections.
To that end, the O’Toole platform, which was a comprehensive document, is very much a mainstream conservative pitch: reducing and simplifying taxes, cutting red tape, balancing the budget, negotiating trade agreements, eliminating interprovincial trade barriers, and so on. That platform also had detailed sections on the environment, climate change, law and order, innovation, agriculture, foreign policy, and defence, to name just a few. The “true blue” pledge that seemed to get the most attention was to cut funding to the CBC and end the Government’s $600 million media support fund.
O’Toole is fortunate to have crafted such a detailed platform as defining himself on policy matters will be critical given the Liberal Government’s plan for a Throne Speech on September 23 outlining a vision for a post-pandemic Canada.
O’Toole’s immediate priority is to reunite the Party and the caucus following a divisive race, particularly with runner-up Peter MacKay and his supporters. For example, MacKay had the highest number of supporters from the Conservative caucus, and Lewis also had a number of MPs backing her. The need to unite caucus will influence decisions on Critics and other Caucus roles, and O’Toole will want to have these sorted out before the House returns on September 23.
At the same time, O’Toole will move quickly to put his Leader’s Office staff in place, and expect some positions to be announced within the next week.
Finally, given the minority government situation and the likelihood of an election in the next twelve months, O’Toole will have to immediately undertake election readiness preparations, including the selection of a campaign manager, candidate recruitment and platform development.
There are likely to be significant changes to staffing in the Leader’s Office, shadow cabinet and Committee assignments. As those unfold, stakeholders will want to introduce themselves and begin positioning their priorities. Given the looming election, stakeholders should also be engaging with all Parties regarding platform priorities.
Erin O’Toole: A Brief History
O’Toole has an impressive resume, having enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force when he was 18 and eventually serving out of Halifax, participating in search and rescue missions as a tactical navigator. O’Toole served in the Canadian Forces for 12 years.
Upon retiring from the military, O’Toole spent the next decade working in the private sector as a corporate lawyer. He is also a founding member of the Board of Directors for the True Patriot Love Foundation, a charity that serves veterans and military families.
O’Toole comes from a political family as his father John was an MPP in the Ontario Legislature from 1995 until 2014. Erin entered the political world in 2012, winning a by-election in the Toronto-area riding of Durham. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade and in January 2015 became Minister of Veterans Affairs.
Though the Conservatives lost the 2015 and 2019 elections, O’Toole was re-elected easily both times. He ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2015 following the resignation of Stephen Harper, finishing in third place. Prior to announcing his most recently leadership run, O’Toole was serving as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.
O’Toole is married and has two children.