Opinion piece

Opinion: O’Toole’s race to the middle

Remember when Canadian politics was obsessed with the middle class? No one could define it, but nobody could stop talking about it either.

These days, politicians are more likely to be talking about what’s happening in the middle of the pandemic than arguing over who is part of the middle class.

But the middle remains a very active consideration for Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, whose fortunes may turn on how well he navigates the churning waters around everything in the middle of Canada – whether that’s the middle class or the centre of the political spectrum.

O’Toole didn’t win the Conservative leadership last August from the middle – that was going to be Peter MacKay’s area of specialization – but it’s where this opposition leader wants to plant himself now in advance of the next election.

When O’Toole paid a call on the Star’s editorial board this week, the conversation kept looping back to this whole idea of the middle and how relevant it was to Conservatives in 2021 – and especially after all that 2020 had done to change the face of politics.

How does anyone keep a Conservative party hugging the centre, for instance, with all the global pressure to be populist and hard right? How does a Conservative party keep clinging to fiscal conservatism and belief in small government while the country is awash in a state-sponsored spending spree to deliver pandemic relief?

O’Toole is presenting himself as the middle-class hero who is going to keep the party’s eyes on the centre, largely by the force of his own disposition.

Up until this week, he had taken on the job of being the Conservatives’ chief critic on “middle-class prosperity,” which Justin Trudeau had turned into a full cabinet post after the 2019 election, to show that Liberals had their eye on this most-sought-after voting bloc in Canada. Conservatives had a lot of fun initially with this newly named ministry – handed to cabinet newcomer Mona Fortier – right up until O’Toole himself decided to make himself the middle-class-prosperity critic. But barely six months into his new job and one second wave of the pandemic later, O’Toole delegated the post to Ontario MP John Nater in a larger shuffle of his shadow cabinet recently. A sign of the times, perhaps?

The Conservative leader told the Star that he had taken on the middle-class critic job largely as a communications exercise.

O’Toole says he grew up in the Greater Toronto Area reading the Star, and boasts he is probably the only Conservative leadership candidate to use the Star in a positive way – to make his case for defunding the CBC’s digital arm.

He acknowledges that the pandemic has taken traditional Conservatism into somewhat unfamiliar territory, with fiscal hawks and libertarians assenting to massive spending programs that have made the government a large and expensive player in people’s lives.

“The whole world has changed,” O’Toole replied when asked whether the pandemic had fundamentally altered conservatism in Canada. “So I think our party is recognizing that. That is why we, literally with no debate, approved billions of dollars in aid.”

The more traditional, spending-conscious kind of conservatism may reassert itself, he said, when it comes time to tackle the economic-recovery plans that he believes will be the top ballot-box question in the next election. After the pandemic, however, will it be as easy to tell Canadians that most problems can be sorted out by the private sector and the market, as conservatives are fond of saying?

Greg Lyle and his Innovative Research firm have been tracking Canadian political values for a long time now, including through the pandemic, and Lyle says his tracking does reveal a decline in fiscal conservatism and populism through the pandemic.

Public opinion about government spending, however, has remained relatively stable. Lyle points to his findings over the past year or so on the question of whether the government should base its spending decisions on what people need or what the state can afford. Before the pandemic, roughly 60 per cent of respondents said spending should be based on need and around 30 per cent were most concerned with affordability. That split hasn’t changed in repeated polling through the pandemic, his polls found.

Similarly stable results are seen on the question of whether it’s the government’s job to redistribute wealth or create equal opportunity. Roughly two in three Canadians, according to Lyle’s research, are much more inclined toward equality of opportunity than they are to wealth redistribution.

Still, Lyle thinks this past year of pandemic spending will leave its mark on public opinion surrounding the role of government and the nature of conservatism.

Even as O’Toole is trying to figure out how to tack the Conservative party toward that sweet spot of middle Canada, where many voters live, his opponents will be doing their best to define him as a political-fringe player.

That’s already been happening. Liberals have been gleefully seizing on any evidence that O’Toole is a hard-right Conservative, constantly reviving the populist sloganeering he’s done on social media – “Take Canada Back” – or the company he keeps, like the recently ejected MP Derek Sloan.

Just recently, O’Toole put out an innocuous little ad to introduce himself to Canadians, which joked that an internet search for him might just as likely turn up Erin Brockovich, the real-life U.S. environmental activist played in a movie by Julia Roberts.

“I’ll be the first to admit not everyone knows me, but Google does,” O’Toole said in a Twitter post to unveil the TV ad.

Within hours the Liberals pounced, posting a doctored version of the ad that featured headlines depicting O’Toole’s flirtation with hard-right policies and social conservatism. “Fixed this up for you,” Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen said in a tweet.

Granted, O’Toole has been quicker than his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, in responding to Liberal attempts to paint him as a reactionary, hard-right conservative, even issuing lengthy, middle-hugging statements to reply to his rivals. But O’Toole’s own Twitter feed is mostly filled with escalating attacks on Trudeau’s competence in pandemic management these days, so no one should expect the next election to be fought on some kind of safe, middle ground when it comes to character and personality.

Back in pre-pandemic times, any politician who claimed to be a middle-class champion had to pass the test of defining it. Basically, the question revolved around whether the middle class is an income bracket or a state of mind. O’Toole puts himself in the latter camp – he says that his idea of the middle class is defined by its dreams: of home ownership, stable jobs and faith in the future. Fundamentally, as O’Toole put it, the middle class is “aspirational.”

So is political leadership, especially as O’Toole faces the year ahead and the prospect of a federal election when the pandemic starts to wind down. It sounds like he’ll only be ready to embark on that trip when he gets to the middle of the road – or when enough Canadians see him that way.

Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.

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