OPINION
09/03/2020 16:44 EDT

O'Toole Must Choose Between The Base That Got Him There And Moving The Party Forward

Reaffirming his support for LGBTQ Canadians would help repair his persona as a moderate among conservatives.

When Parliament resumes Sept. 23, one of the first and most telling tests Erin O’Toole will face as the newly elected leader of the federal Conservative Party will be to address lingering concerns over his fairweather support of the LGBTQ community.

How O’Toole moves forward on this file will crystallize the type of Conservative Party he wishes to head, and reveal his character as a leader. Both could factor heavily in determining the party’s success in the next election.

Sean Kilpatrick/Pool via REUTERS
Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole speaks after his win at the 2020 Leadership Election, in Ottawa on Aug. 24, 2020.

The rookie Conservative leader has two paths before him.

The first is to promote the values of acceptance, diversity and inclusion by full-heartedly embracing the LGBTQ community in a way the Conservative Party has never done before. To do so, O’Toole will need to not only demonstrate support for the community through his rhetoric, but also through his actions, whether it is voting to ban conversion therapy or by marching in a pride parade.

It would risk alienating some voters in the party’s socially conservative wing, where intolerance against the LGBTQ community is deeply entrenched. It would also be no easy feat — O’Toole owes them a great deal of credit for his leadership win. Pursuing a more progressive form of conservatism would require strength, conviction and above all, principled leadership from O’Toole.

O’Toole’s record on LGBTQ issues is contradictory and full of ambiguities.

O’Toole could also largely follow the strategy of his predecessor, Andrew Scheer — albeit with a few minor differences. Such a path would involve appeasing the social conservatives who helped elect him leader while paying lip service to the LGBTQ community. It would do nothing to modernize the Conservative Party, but it would be politically expedient — caucus meetings would certainly be less fractious.

To be sure, the second path is the easier of the two. But it is also a lesser path for a lesser man and a lesser party. 

Leadership, at a price

After serving eight years as a member of Parliament, O’Toole’s record on LGBTQ issues is contradictory and full of ambiguities.

When first elected in 2012, O’Toole was commonly viewed as a standard bearer of the moderate wing of the party. He had long supported the decriminalization of marijuana and is at least somewhat supportive of a women’s right to an abortion.

His record on LGBTQ issues was equally viewed as one of moderation. O’Toole is, and remains, a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage; something far from universal in his party. He was also one of only 18 Conservative MPs, back in 2012, to vote in favour of a bill which granted legal protections for trans and non-binary Canadians. Of course, under a Stephen Harper majority government, that bill was never going to be passed into legislation. 

It was simply too tolerant for the bulk of the social conservative backbench, a lesson O’Toole himself learned when he campaigned to succeed Harper in 2017. He subsequently lost to Scheer, a far more socially conservative candidate.

O’Toole swung heavily to the right of the party, cleverly selling himself as a “True Blue Conservative.”

While he built his persona as a moderate on the stage of general politics, O’Toole learned that taking a progressive slant is not a recipe for success in today’s Conservative Party.

Perhaps it was not surprising then, to witness O’Toole completely change strategies in his latest bid for power. In the run-up to last month’s leadership race, O’Toole swung heavily to the right of the party, cleverly selling himself as a “True Blue Conservative.”

To make the transformation convincing, he baited supporters of his two social conservative rivals. Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan’s platforms made it abundantly clear that neither would ban conversion therapy — Sloan absurdly equated the Liberal’s proposed ban on conversion therapy with “child abuse” — or march in a pride parade. Nor would they have voted for Bill C-16, a piece of Liberal legislation which adds “gender expression” and “gender identity” to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination. 

O’Toole himself soon began echoing their anti-LGBTQ sentiment. The once-moderate O’Toole declared that he would only march in a pride parade once the police were allowed, a move straight from the playbook of his provincial counterpart, Ontario’s Doug Ford.

Sean Kilpatrick/Pool via REUTERS
Erin O’Toole greets fellow candidates Peter MacKay and Leslyn Lewis after being elected leader of the federal Conservative party.

O’Toole also claimed, in a leaked video of him speaking with social conservatives in Quebec, that he was worried about the Liberal government’s proposed ban on conversion therapy, stating that “it’s very important to respect the conversation between a priest and the members of their flock.” While his campaign staff eventually walked back his comments, the message couldn’t have been more clear: under a O’Toole led government, social conservatives would not be denied a place at the table. And neither, apparently, would antagonism against the LGBTQ community. 

While both Lewis and Sloan eventually fell off the ballot, their supporters unsurprisingly swung heavily in favour of O’Toole, who spent months carefully wooing them, and at times matched their anti-LGBTQ language. 

As the results of last month’s Conservative leadership election show, the strategy proved an immense success. But the win came at a price, potentially threatening his ambitions of forming government and becoming the next prime minister of Canada.

It’s unlikely that Canada may be able to stomach another anti-LGBTQ political leader. O’Toole’s record as a somewhat-moderate supporter of the LGBTQ community is now muddied by inconsistencies, and the values that won O’Toole leadership don’t align with the majority of voters who see LGBTQ support as a must-have in a general election.

Reclaiming his reputation as a moderate conservative will be by no means easy. It will require him to confront the very influential faction of the party that secured him his very leadership.

But to not do so would fly in the face of all the principle he appeared to once hold. It would also be fly in the face of all that is just and compassionate.

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