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Meet Erin O’Toole, Canada’s New Conservative Ghoul

The Conservative Party of Canada has announced a new leader: Erin O’Toole. A seemingly spiritless, staid candidate, his leadership may nevertheless prove a strategic win for Conservatives.

Combined with the usual rhetoric that marshals the Conservative base, Erin O’Toole could very possibly put the party in a solid position. And that makes him dangerous. (Veterans Affairs Canada)

The platform of Erin O’Toole, the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), is unsurprising: he wants to criminalize rail blockades, following the series of protests against the Coastal GasLink Pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land; take a hard line against China and heighten support for Israel; slash the budget of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; reduce taxes and balance the budget; and engage alienated prairie provinces.

It’s a unity platform in its own way, bringing together the base’s Trumpish, right-populist tendencies, the suburban deficit-obsessed, big business, and the West. Save for a few topical updates, it’s not substantially different from a standard Conservative platform, except in one key way. On Labor Day, O’Toole signaled an interest in economic nationalism, calling for a “Canada First” approach. This would mark a large break from the Conservative Party’s free trade past. Everything else, though, appears to be business as usual.

However boring, Erin O’Toole shouldn’t be underestimated. As the governing Liberal Party increasingly racks up pandemic debt, exploitable opportunities are opening up for the Conservative Party. Some tactical deficit-talk — i.e., “the adults have arrived to clean up the mess” — could likely sway some Con-curious suburbanites. And economic nationalism could pick up some working- and middle-class voters, at least theoretically. Combined with the usual rhetoric that marshals the Conservative base, O’Toole could very possibly put the party in a solid position. And that makes him dangerous.

A Typical Business-Friendly Conservative

O’Toole’s political career started in the early 2010s, after a stint in the Air Force and a brief legal career as a corporate lawyer for Procter & Gamble. Elected in a 2012 Ontario byelection, he was promoted to minister of veterans affairs in the Harper cabinet in 2015. During Justin Trudeau’s tenure, the CPC dubbed him shadow minister for foreign affairs in 2018.

For the entirety of his career, he has represented the riding of Durham, which includes parts of Oshawa, Ontario — the longtime home of General Motors. O’Toole often flouts that his dad, John O’Toole, worked for GM — and he did, but as a manager. He then ran for provincial parliament in the 1990s to join Mike Harris’s devastating “Common Sense Revolution” assault on workers.

As is common in communities where GM has had a presence, Oshawa workers (represented formerly by the Canadian Auto Workers, now Unifor) as well as community groups like We Are Oshawa and the Durham Region Labour Council (DRLC) have waged a long, protracted battle to keep auto plants alive. However, the Conservatives have been a central component of the cross-party consensus on free trade, dutifully assisting GM’s ongoing outsourcing abroad. And in 2009, they happily threw billions at GM without any assurances of keeping jobs in Canada. When O’Toole joined the CPC in 2012, much of the damage was already done, and he was all too happy to help signal a death knell.

When GM announced an all-out final shutdown in 2019, O’Toole delivered a bizarre eulogy to General Motors, accepting their abandonment of the community and thanking them for their “innovation” over the last hundred years. He then blamed their departure, of course, on Canada’s “cumbersome” regulations, taxes, and red tape.

By the end of this year, the company will employ a mere three hundred employees, down from the thousands that once populated the lines. While the business parties lubricated their exit, activists imagined alternatives, as they have for decades. Local organizations like Green Jobs Oshawa and the DRLC have called for a transformative approach to the shutdown: nationalizing GM’s capital stock and using it to create sustainable jobs.

Boring Like a Fox

A former “moderate,” O’Toole has lately been more accepting of the party’s social conservative elements. By aligning itself with the prolific right-wing meme farm Ontario Proud, and expressing greater tolerance for opinions from the socially conservative wing of the party, his campaign wrested victory from former front-runner Peter MacKay.

His first bid for the position, in 2017, faced accusations of being too liberal — particularly because of his positions on gay marriage and abortion.

This time, he’s revised his message, rebranded himself as a “true blue Conservative,” got a co-sign from Alberta premier-vampire Jason Kenney, and signed on to the culture war by posting cringe against “cancel culture” and “the radical left.” His slogan: “Take Canada Back.”

On a basic level, O’Toole’s human suit is more convincing than outgoing leader Andrew Scheer, whose creepy, outward social conservatism is often used to explain away the Conservatives’ poor election showing. O’Toole’s ability to conceal — or, rather, balance — his party’s social conservatism with more popular economic issues could constitute a decisive advantage. Thus far, he has been able to appeal to both mainstream and social conservatives without alienating either faction. He may seem dull and lifeless, but this is no easy feat. The extent to which O’Toole represents a real threat politically — and has play among Canadians whenever the next election happens — shouldn’t be understated.

Leveraging COVID-19 for CPC Gain

Unlike the last election, the next one will surely be shaped by the pandemic and the Trudeau government’s response — namely the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). CERB has already been criticized by deficit hawks, welfare-bashers, and the business community. Paired with the usual dog whistling, grievances with “cancel culture,” and some “fiscal responsibility” positioning, the CPC could effectively activate its base and likely expand it. O’Toole has already taken aim at the CERB, arguing that it was a fundamental misstep: instead of pumping up unemployment protections, he remarks that he would’ve handed off money to employers through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) to “save the jobs.”

The political alternative to Canada’s ruling Liberal Party is the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). To their credit, the federal NDP’s platform is far better than it was in the 2015 election. They now call for public health care to include pharmaceuticals, cheaper education, and a national, universal childcare program. Presently, they’re propping up the Liberal minority government. How they’ll use that leverage remains to be seen.

But the NDP has bungled their priorities during the COVID-19 crisis. They collaborated with the other parties and the business lobby on the CEWS, which by now has gifted the private sector billions.

The business assault has already arrived. Canadians are being accused of being “addicted” to pandemic aid. Capital wants to rescind pandemic pay premiums, is attacking income supports at every turn, and pushing for a careless retour à la normale by reopening schools and businesses.

But workers are organizing. Grocery workers in Newfoundland and Labrador are on strike against the retraction of pandemic pay and attacks on full-time jobs. Fight for $15 and Fairness has intensified their call for paid sick days for all. Currently, 58 percent of all Canadian workers do not have access to paid sick leave. This campaign has won gains in certain provinces, but remains temporary and incomplete. And now that the school year is here, teachers may very well plan job actions in protest of staggeringly flimsy — and patently dangerous — reopening plans.

There’s no doubt that if Erin O’Toole can unite and mobilize the CPC base and win the next federal election, whenever it is, he’ll do his best to bludgeon workers with the full force of a revitalized conservative movement. He may be a typical Conservative ghoul, similar in style and substance to most of the ghouls before him, but some small tweaks and populist positions could prove effective at the polls. And the outcome would be disastrous.

There’s also little doubt that a new lease on life for the Liberals will come with a thorough belt-tightening to keep their backers happy after unprecedented spending. An unlikely NDP win will depend on their ability to seize the moment, though years of provincial governments have not exactly been socialist utopias either — as demonstrated by the cases of Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan and Bob Rae in Ontario. As always, the work of building alternatives is cut out for the labor movement, regardless of when the next election is, what party takes power, or where the pandemic takes us.