Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole responds to the government’s economic and fiscal update in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. O’Toole remains Conservative party leader three months after losing to the Liberals in September’s federal election, and as the political machine itself crossed the milestone from adolescence into adulthood by turning 18. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole responds to the government’s economic and fiscal update in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. O’Toole remains Conservative party leader three months after losing to the Liberals in September’s federal election, and as the political machine itself crossed the milestone from adolescence into adulthood by turning 18. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Despite dissent, O’Toole poised to end 2021 where he started it — as Tory leader

Direction O’Toole is taking party a source of consternation within Conservative base

OTTAWA — If the Conservative Party of Canada were a person, it would have reached the age where it could vote and legally drink in half the provinces.

Like many 18-year-olds, the party is deciding its future, searching for an identity and rebelling against authority.

Three months after losing to the Liberals in a general election — and amid calls from members of caucus and the broader party to trigger an early review of his leadership — Erin O’Toole remains at the helm of the party.

He’s held on to the job long enough to watch the party of Stephen Harper — who united the old Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties under the Conservative umbrella — reach a milestone this month: emerging from adolescence into young adulthood.

But with a new year only days away, O’Toole faces rifts within his caucus and the wider Conservative movement, the latest being over his ambivalent stance on Quebec’s controversial secularism law, which resulted in a Muslim teacher losing her job because she wears a hijab.

British Columbia MP Mark Strahl recently said he and “many, many” other MPs feel Conservatives must be willing to fight the law in court, which contrasts with the leader’s position of leaving it up to Quebecers to decide.

O’Toole retorted by saying Tories should speak as a team.

Then there was a Facebook post from Alberta MP and social conservative Arnold Viersen, who apologized for not speaking up against a move by Conservatives to fast-track a government bill banning conversion therapy for LGBTQ Canadians. He said he and others took issue with the bill’s wording but were caught off guard by a Conservative motion to spirit it through the legislative process without a vote.

And now the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has thrown the spotlight back on a pandemic that has proved divisive for the Conservatives.

In the run-up to the Nov. 22 return of Parliament, Tory MPs spent weeks split over the issue of mandatory vaccinations and what their party should say about the policy.

For party president Rob Batherson, the push and pull within the coalition is nothing new.

“For Conservative party members, coalition building and evolving to ensure that there’s a good set of Conservative ideas that will attract support of Canadians over the next decade requires work, requires a little patience, requires discipline, requires unity,” he says.

As for the calls to dump O’Toole — following a successful campaign to oust former leader Andrew Scheer after the 2019 election loss — Batherson chalks some of it up to the impatience of spending six years out of government.

“All parties have to evolve to be successful. You couldn’t run Brian Mulroney’s campaign of 1984 and be successful in 2021,” he says. “You couldn’t run Stephen Harper’s campaign of 2006 and be successful in 2021.”

The direction O’Toole is taking the party continues to be a source of consternation within the Conservative base.

Most recently, some grassroots members say he sent a chill through the party with his decision to show veteran Conservative Sen. Denise Batters the caucus room door over her petition for an expedited leadership review.

There also are complaints that his efforts to put a more moderate stamp on the Conservative brand to broaden its appeal has been done at the expense of long-held values, like restrained spending. Social conservatives and firearms owners have also expressed frustration over promises O’Toole made to them and on which he later backtracked.

Regardless of what happens next, Conservatives know one thing: they need to grow, particularly in and around the vote-rich suburban belt around Toronto known as the 905. To do that, at least one former Toronto candidate believes it needs to keep moving toward the political centre.

Geoffrey Turner says the party’s opposition to mandatory vaccination was one reason he heard that people were reluctant to vote Conservative.

“It was a loser for us,” he said.

“It failed to satisfy the majority who, like me, are fully vaccinated and like being safe when going out in public. And our policy didn’t satisfy the minority in our country who are hesitant about vaccinations.”

The party’s position on gun control created another problem, he says.

The Conservative platform initially promised to repeal a ban on what the Liberal government deems assault-style firearms. On the campaign trail, O’Toole backed away from the pledge and the platform was amended with a footnote explaining that all firearms currently banned would remain banned.

All this left many people scratching their heads.

“It opened up a fear about how solid we really were on this notion of moderating our policies,” said Turner.

Batherson expects more direction about the party’s next steps will come once former Conservative MP James Cumming finishes a review of the party’s election loss, anticipated by the end of January.

More broadly, Crestview Strategy vice-president and former Conservative staffer Andrew Brander believes the party must decide whether it wants to be rooted in principle, or a cult of personality based on its past successes.

It would be wise for Conservatives, while out of government, to hash out how far they’re willing to go on human rights and the environment, issues that seem to spark an identity crisis for what Brander notes is “still a young party.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2021.

Erin O'Toole