Opinion

Opinion: Tories’ climate change vote widens reality gap facing O’Toole

This weekend’s Conservative convention has given Canadian politics a whole new definition of virtual reality.

At the party’s first virtual policy gathering, reality was a casualty – specifically, one simple phrase: “climate change is real.”

New leader Erin O’Toole insisted: “Climate change is real.” The party’s grassroots voted against.

This one development almost guarantees that Justin Trudeau and his Liberals will be doing everything they can to put climate change at the centre of the next election campaign, whenever that happens.

O’Toole also said “the debate is over.” Liberals were all over social media on Saturday, saying no, it’s not.

Practically speaking, the vote against climate change doesn’t stop O’Toole from coming up with a comprehensive climate change plan, as he promised in a well-delivered, largely well-received speech on Friday night.

In fact, the vote against climate change reality will likely add urgency to the Conservatives’ efforts to come up with such a plan before the next election. If anything, that plan will have to be more forceful to cut through all the noise that Conservatives’ opponents will be making about the reality-defying protest vote from the party rank and file.

O’Toole’s Friday night speech was his clearest declaration yet that he is intent on moving the party out of its old comfort zone. The actual convention proceedings were evidence of just how difficult that could be.

You could call it another reality gap for the Conservatives – between the party that O’Toole wants it to be, and the one he is actually leading.

O’Toole took several risks with his big speech to the troops, all with the aim of jarring Conservatives out of complacency. No, he said, the party will not automatically win power on the basis of Liberal mistakes. No, Conservatives can’t just dust off what worked for them before and hope Canadians will come around.

In a Saturday morning panel session on economic issues, lawyer and former O’Toole campaign co-chair Walied Soliman spoke spiritedly about how Conservatives had to pay a lot more attention to regaining a foothold in Mississauga, Ont. and other areas of the GTA.

O’Toole told party delegates on Saturday he aspires to be Canada’s first prime minister from the GTA.

But the geographic centre of the current Conservative party lies farther west of the GTA, with well over half the current MPs hailing from Alberta, Saskatchewan, B.C. and Manitoba. So there’s another gap – a geographic-reality one.

For all the talk about getting Conservatives unstuck from the past, O’Toole also sent strong signals that his party will be the anti-Ottawa party, the perpetual renegades in the corridors of power. O’Toole said he would “clean up the mess in Ottawa” with a tough new “anti-corruption” law.

This is a page straight out of the Stephen Harper playbook, with all its “accountability” measures and war-on-elites rhetoric. In or out of power, Conservatives continue to see Ottawa as enemy Liberal territory, which may resonate with the base, but not so much with people who have voted Liberal in the past.

Moreover, if you keep telling voters that you don’t belong in Ottawa, they may end up believing you.

Over the course of this last pandemic year, we have all learned that virtual reality isn’t the same as reality. Connecting with people online isn’t the same as dealing with them face to face; an email exchange isn’t the same as a real-life, spontaneous conversation.

A virtual convention isn’t the same as a real convention either, when delegates can talk and haggle behind the scenes about policy differences. What a leader says onstage – even well, and compellingly – may not be the same as what party members are saying as they sit at home.

Erin O’Toole set himself a tall challenge going into this weekend’s virtual convention – to tell his party some hard truths about how it needs to change if it wants to win the next election. The arguments were sound; the logic was clear. That Friday night speech could well have been subtitled: A Dose of Reality.

The vote on climate change, however, underlined just how difficult it is to speak truth to a party out of power: a display of disagreement on reality itself.

Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.

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