Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on Dec. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative policy convention may put O’Toole’s pledge of moderation to the test

Conservative policy convention may put O’Toole’s pledge of moderation to the test

OTTAWA — The Conservative party’s upcoming policy convention may test an assertion by leader Erin O’Toole Sunday that he leads a “moderate, pragmatic, mainstream party,”

Issues so far advanced for potential debate include medical assistance in dying, religious freedoms, the rights of parents to raise their kids free of government or institutional interference and ending the use of most temporary foreign workers.

A concerted effort to register delegates is also being made by those seeking to delete the party’s official line that a Conservative government would not support any legislation to regulate abortion.

“Sick of hearing Conservative politicians say they ‘won’t reopen the abortion debate?’ Then change it,” the group Right Now told their supporters.

“Register to become a delegate at the upcoming online policy convention and vote to remove that line from the policy handbook.”

O’Toole supports a woman’s right to choose, a point he reiterated in a statement Sunday where he laid out steps he’s personally taken to showcase a party that bears zero resemblance to the right-wing extremism on display in the United States in the aftermath of the U.S. election.

With the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden this week, and the potential for renewed violence in the U.S., a line needed to be drawn that the party doesn’t tolerate the “far right,” O’Toole’s office said.

But when asked what that will mean in practice, both for O’Toole’s caucus and at the convention taking place online in March, they didn’t answer.

For example, his office said last week it will no longer grant interviews to the provocative right-wing organization The Rebel, but wouldn’t say whether that ban would extend to all. At least one MP has granted them an interview since then.

For their part, The Rebel took a direct swipe at O’Toole Monday, accusing him of ignoring the base of the party.

“Hey (Erin O’Toole),” wrote The Rebel’s Keean Bexte in response to an O’Toole tweet about American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

“I know you are busy virtue signalling about a foreign activist from the last century — but right now in your country, gun owners (your base — for now) are in court fighting tooth an nail to stop that politician you’re paid to oppose.”

The people who form the base of the party, which does include gun-rights advocates, are also those who will show up in force at the convention.

It’s a venue where O’Toole can set the tone, said former party strategist Tim Powers.

“He’s going to want to use that to showcase modernity.”

O’Toole’s victory was strongly tied to the supporters of two other candidates in the contest: Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis.

Their committed backers were social conservatives who ultimately handed O’Toole his win.

Sloan reached out to his own list earlier this month, urging them to sign up for the convention.

“We need as many truly ‘conservative’ delegates to participate as possible. The more ‘conservative’ delegates who participate, the more success we will have in making the (Conservative Party of Canada) into a truly conservative party,” Sloan wrote in an email to his supporters earlier this month.

Sloan’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.

At the 2018 convention, social conservatives lost their bid to remove the party’s policy on abortion and say if they could have marshalled just 106 more delegates, it would have passed.

Party leaders don’t normally have transparent control over what policy resolutions go up for debate. It’s a complicated system that includes member votes, regional representation and the ultimate green-light by party officials.

But, previous Conservative leaders have been accused of placing pressure on those officials to structure debates such that time runs out before certain ideas can be discussed.

Those allegations saw O’Toole promise during his leadership bid that all ideas that make it to the convention will have a chance to be heard and voted on.

“Let’s embrace our grassroots, not run from it,” he said in his platform.

Whether he stands by that pledge is unclear. His office directed questions on the subject to the party, which did not immediately return a request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2021.

— with files from Lee Berthiaume

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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