Erin O'Toole's Real Problem is His Party

Last week, pundit panels were buzzing about what Erin O'Toole could say at the convention to attract new voters and rally the base. We now have the answer: nothing.

Conservatives may be in trouble, but they don't seem willing to do what they must to turn things around. The stark lesson from last week's convention is that the real problem is with the base, not the leader. Going into the convention, the main criticism of O'Toole was that he's all over the map: talking like a rock-ribbed westerner one day and a Quebec nationalist the next; cozying up to social conservatives, then declaring he leads a party that respects personal choice.In short, he was trying to be all things to all people and the Convention was a chance to fix the script – to tell a relatively coherent story that rallies the base and appeals to voters. That turns out to be a circle that he just can't square.In O'Toole's view, there's only one way that Conservatives can win the next election: move toward the centre. And on that count, his convention speech pretty much said the right things. As for rallying the base, not so much.No matter how you spin it, delegates' thumbs down on climate change was a defining moment for his leadership – maybe for the next election. It was an act of rebellion from a cranky (mostly aging) crowd that sees any effort to move the party away from its Reformist roots as a concession to the Liberals.And that is bad news for someone trying to attract new people and new ideas to the party. For that, O'Toole needs the base behind him. These are not just the people who donate money and knock on the doors. Their voices can make or break the leader's message.Take diversity. The whiff of intolerance remains strong among more than a few Conservatives. In his speech on Friday, O'Toole did what he could to reassure racialized Canadians and members of the LGBTQ community that the Conservative doors are open to people with different values and practices.But that message won't sell unless the anti-immigration crowd and the social conservatives hold their tongues. The message from the convention is not encouraging.Or consider the issue of fiscal responsibility. The Liberals have run up hundreds of billions of dollars in debt and, in normal times, the Blue Team would be using this to hit homeruns.Instead, the Liberals have turned deficit-spending into a winning game, arguing that these levels of support are necessary to get Canadians through the pandemic and back on their feet. For his part, O'Toole not only agrees with deficit spending but thinks it should continue for another decade.Many in the party don't get it. They think he is squandering an opportunity to recapture the spirit of fiscal conservatism that animated the Harper years: a focus on attracting investment, expanding trade, and disciplined management of the public purse.In fact, much of the country is in no mood to talk about fiscal restraint and putting it on the agenda now would likely kill any chance O'Toole has of pulling votes from the centre. But that view isn't finding much support from the base.And finally, there is the post-pandemic recovery. Liberals think the world is moving to a carbon-free economy – likely faster than slower if Joe Biden is right. Businesses that make themselves part of this transition will be part of a lucrative new market. Those who ignore or deny the trend will be left behind.O'Toole may condemn the Liberals' plan to “build back better,” but he's also pushing hard on the idea that Canada's oil and gas industry is a leader in cleantech and positioning itself for an environmentally sound and prosperous future.Many Canadians will wonder how he thinks government can help. A convincing answer requires a climate change plan to help O'Toole explain how his government would work with industry on this. Refusing to recognize this leaves him severely handicapped. He will have no choice but to push ahead with forging a plan on his own, in spite of the base.So, the leader really is between a rock and a hard place. Mainstream Canada is changing and the only way to grow the party is to change along with it. The O'Toole we saw last Friday evening obviously gets this, but much of the base is somewhere else.If there were doubts before the convention that he could rally them, the message coming out of it is that the party is deeply divided – on climate change, diversity, fiscal responsibility, and a changing economy.Eventually, people may come around, but it's hard to see this happening before the next election. O'Toole's best hope for winning it may be that Justin Trudeau loses it.As for Trudeau, if he remains focused on delivering the vaccine, the future looks promising…Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.