Walking the Tightrope

3 minute read

He’s only been on the job for two weeks, but new Leader of the Conservative Party Erin O’Toole has certainly been thrown in the deep end. O’Toole has followed the traditional path of new party leaders by setting up his inner circle, naming his senior House Leadership team members last week and announcing his Shadow Cabinet yesterday. Where his path veers from tradition, is that he has had to do it all with a limited runway and while staring down the barrel of a possible federal election.

Despite his insistence that he does not want one, no one can blame Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for proroguing Parliament and daring the opposition parties to vote against the Speech from the Throne. After all, it has taken attention away from the WE controversy and the very public resignation of Finance Minister Bill Morneau. As well, the current provincial election in New Brunswick at least notionally demonstrates that voters do not always punish governments for going to the polls early (or in the middle of a pandemic). That said, the appetite for New Brunswickers to head to the polls may be different from the rest of Canadians, given their last provincial election was nearly two years ago (compared to just eleven months nationally). 

While O’Toole has made it clear that he does not want an election, he says he will have the Conservatives ready for one. Recent polling from Abacus Data sheds some light as to why Erin O’Toole may not be opposed to the saber-rattling: O’Toole’s approval ratings have seen a large uptick in the past two weeks, while Trudeau’s have fallen.

Living up to his ‘non-election’ commitment will be a balancing act for the Leader of the Opposition. With the Bloc Quebecois already announcing that they will vote against the Throne Speech, dissenting votes from the Conservative caucus will push Canada to the brink of an election, leaving the final say up to the NDP.

Not only will he not want to be seen as pushing the country into an election, O’Toole and his team still want a runway to place their stamp on the Conservatives. In just 17 days, there has been an intentional shift in tone compared to Andrew Scheer’s tenure. The new Leader will want some time to build up his name recognition, and showcase this new, more “inclusive” approach to Canadians. Yesterday’s Shadow Cabinet appointments were not only a nod to candidates who supported him, but also an attempt to elevate the younger voices in the Conservative caucus. Long described as the party for old, white men, O’Toole is trying to show voters that it is no longer the case in a bid to expand the ‘blue tent’.

But do the Tories have to vote against the Speech from the Throne? Could they instead opt to support or abstain from voting to avoid an election? While it would be fitting in 2020 to pull a fast one and support the speech, it is very improbable. Passing the Speech from the Throne would be seen as condoning not only a new wave of spending, but also the WE Charity controversy and policies like the federal firearm ban that ultimately contributed to O’Toole’s leadership success in Quebec.

It won’t be long before we know the verdict. In just two short weeks, the Trudeau Liberals will live to fight another day or we will be thrown into another election. The question remaining is whether that will be enough time for O’Toole’s rebrand of the Conservatives to fully take effect.

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