You could understand, as a federal election beckons, if Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole felt entitled to a little sympathy. He is less popular than his party, which is less popular than the government, a curiosity defying easy explanation.
After all, the list of Justin Trudeau’s lapses as prime minister is lengthy. If governments defeat themselves, tradition would hold that this one would be headed down the chute.
Since the blackface episode, the Aga Khan-sponsored holiday and the SNC-Lavalin implosion of his first term, this stint has brought us:
a) the WE Charity debacle;
b) the revelation of a disastrous choice for governor general;
c) an unprecedented lawsuit against the Commons Speaker (basically against the primacy of Parliament) for daring to demand documents on the firing from a top-security Winnipeg virology lab of two scientists who fled to China, which may have squirreled away lethal viruses from that lab to the infamous Wuhan one;
d) the ongoing disgrace of 51 drinking water advisories in 32 First Nations communities;
e) the shielding of an Indigenous Relations minister after she slurred an Indigenous MP;
f) the quashing of an inquiry by a Commons committee into payments by the taxpayer-funded Liberal Research Bureau to a firm led by the prime minister’s childhood friend;
g) touted yet thankfully stifled legislation on the internet that would have regulated our amateur videos;
h) a probable law before the election that so broadly defines hate speech it has shaken civil liberties experts;
i) destructive, debilitating and rampant sexual misconducts within the ranks and harassment allegations and cover-ups amid the upper reaches of the military, including the former chief of the defence staff;
j) the detention of the two Michaels and the enfeebled Canadian position on China; and
j) a trillion-dollar-plus projected debt, a higher tax load for every working Canadian, and a runaway deficit with no timeline for the first time ever for a balanced budget.
And yet, and yet, and yet, it is O’Toole who finds he cannot earn the trust of Canadians as Trudeau traipses to the inevitable, imminent and unnecessary September election with only one rationale: the scent in the snouts of the Liberals of a Commons majority. There is at the federal level the pretence of minority government dysfunction that British Columbians fell for last year.
The steady stream of cheques to Canadians has papered over the prime minister’s flaws in first failing to source vaccines, then overpaying for them, then taking too long to inoculate. The country is tentatively reopening with crossed fingers that the variants shuttering other regions of the planet won’t migrate here as we shutter government for two months.
The pandemic has dimmed the lights of the Commons theatre from which Canadians largely derive their take on federal politics. It is now no better than another exhausting Zoom call. But it is on that stage that the understudies audition for the lead role, so the timing couldn’t have been worse for O’Toole in winning the leadership 11 months ago.
“I am,” he notes, “up against a celebrity.”
One, it should be further noted, who long ago took acting lessons to rehearse his spontaneously summoned empathy, and more urgently displayed pandemic-era varying lengths of full-headed hair, a silver-speckled beard to effect gravitas, and a recent-day shave to restore cover-boy youth.
How do you really beat that telegenic?
How, indeed, does it make sense when you are in fact younger than your rival, more consistently pro-choice over the years, more extensively supportive of LGBTQ policies, a clear climate-change believer who is directing his party to take heed, a product of law school and the middle class and not the trust fund, a veteran of military service to the country, even a convert to labour unions?
Why, oh why, does that not score points here, there and everywhere? How is it that polls place him the lowest among leaders Canadians would want to be prime minister?
Several answers abound.
In conversation, O’Toole’s response is that Canadians don’t know him yet. He thinks six weeks on the trail will change that. And it’s true typically that campaigns matter, provided an environment of open minds.
Another answer is that the pandemic has distorted discourse and placed Trudeau in an outsized role, particularly as he spoke day after day in the early stages of the coronavirus. It cemented leadership constancy that might be chipped away in a campaign but will be hard to shatter.
Another answer, of course, is that Liberals have been more effective at painting O’Toole outside the lines than his team has been in realistically painting within them. The person you encounter in an extensive discussion is not the person you perceive through media, and to be clear, his party has not been the most compliant under him.
It doesn’t help when you can’t persuade caucus to unanimously support legislation against conversion therapy or your party convention to unambiguously recognize the human causes of global warming.
His big tent has more obvious noisy occupants than does Trudeau’s, even if both parties house their share of problem children.
Thus the calcified image of an intolerant, knuckle-dragging, war-mongering tycoon with a party of racist, backwards, rapacious capitalists privileging their positions, up against a crusader of compassion for the underdog, a commitment to social reckoning and climate action, and a reconciliation of the Canadian power dynamic that leaves many more winners than losers. Neither being true.
The Liberals will head to the polls as the perceived occupants of the centre and the recent usurpers of edgy elements of the left. They don’t need an NDP partner for the agenda. They want to make the argument we don’t need the NDP, period.
I can’t be sure that O’Toole has the stuff of national leadership, but I hope we all get out of this campaign a fair opportunity to evaluate him. •
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.