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Canada’s new Conservative leader must heed the conservative message


ON Monday the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), chose a new leader, Erin O’Toole. A former captain in the Canadian air force and veterans minister, O’Toole now has the task of leading Canada’s main opposition political party back to power against a scandal-hit Liberal government which is losing support. 

The Conservatives held power in Canada prior to the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in 2015. In the 2019 election Trudeau defeated the previous Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and was returned to office, although without a parliamentary majority. Another federal election is in the offing, perhaps this autumn.

The fact that Scheer is a Roman Catholic was enough to disqualify him in the eyes of many, particularly the progressive elites. They claimed he would be committed to restricting Canada’s extremely liberal abortion law and would be opposed to same-sex marriage. These concerns were raised although Scheer said nothing which would indicate a desire to move Canada in a more socially conservative direction. He did not run against same-sex marriage, neither did he propose any changes to Canada’s regime of unregulated abortion.

Yet because Scheer was often characterised as a ‘devout Catholic’, and described himself as ‘personally pro-life’ and wouldn’t answer ‘no’ when asked if homosexuality is sinful, the self-appointed guardians of Canadian public life concluded that diversity could only go so far and Scheer was unacceptable. As New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh bluntly put it, ‘You cannot have Mr Scheer’s beliefs and be the prime minister of Canada.’ 

Will O’Toole be any more acceptable? His campaign pledged to fight for blue-collar workers, promote a more aggressive foreign policy especially in confronting China, and protect Canadian institutions and history from political correctness. He is also a long-time supporter of CANZUK, a trade, military and security deal between Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Australia.

But when it comes down to performance, is he capable of being a leader who changes the direction of Canadian politics, or is he, like so many Conservative Party politicians, a Christian In Name Only, making the right noises to gain CPC leadership?

On the whole, O’Toole is lukewarm on the issues about which Christians and social conservatives care. Sceptics think that O’Toole spoke about freedom of conscience and religion mainly to woo Christians to rank him second or third on their leadership ballots, but that he does not really have their best interests at heart.

In his leadership platform, speeches and voting record, he promised not to introduce legislation on abortion, but to permit CPC MPs to introduce abortion legislation on which he would allow a free vote. He has also indicated support for LGBTQ2+ ‘rights’ and has participated in pride parades. Supporters say that, although he may not make progress on social issues, he will halt or at least slow the erosion of Christian values in Canada.

The really significant story of his election and the more encouraging outcome from the leadership race is how O’Toole won. He won with the down-ballot support of social conservatives.

CPC leaders are chosen through a ranked ballot; a candidate has to gain the support of at least 50 per cent of Canada’s ridings (constituencies). If no candidate gains 50 per cent on the first ballot the last placed candidate is eliminated with their votes being passed on to the other candidates and the process continues until there is a clear winner.

On the first ballot two outright social conservatives, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis, received 14.4 and 20.5 per cent respectively, Erin O’Toole received 31.6 per cent and Peter Mackay received 33.5 per cent.

On the second ballot the three candidates almost tied, O’Toole led with 35.2 per cent, Mackay gained 34.8 per cent and Lewis 30.0 per cent. Lewis actually gained the most votes on the second ballot, but because the leadership race is based on ridings won rather than individual votes he was eliminated. On the final ballot O’Toole won with 57 per cent. The significant story of the election is that social conservatives and Christians made an important difference in the race.

At the beginning of the race Leslyn Lewis was an obscure commercial lawyer turned politician with a PhD. Her platform, which gained the support of nearly a third of CPC members, was based on four fundamental beliefs:

1. Upholding the family as the cornerstone of society: parents have the right to raise their children according to their beliefs.

2. Protecting Canada’s fundamental freedoms: freedom of expression, conscience and religion must be protected.

3. Pursuing compassion towards the vulnerable: protecting seniors, veterans, disabled and indigenous peoples.

4. Standing for Fiscal Responsibility: no excessive taxation or burdening future generations with today’s debt.

It is as yet unclear what role in the CPC O’Toole will give the unabashed social conservative Lewis, but an ethnic-minority woman who comes from nowhere to gain a third of her party’s support cannot be ignored. Even if O’Toole is tepid on socially conservative issues he is going to be forced to listen to the voice of a significant section of his party.

Political pundits argue that to win elections you have to move to the centre. However, if you are a conservative party this means that you have to move to the left. A significant proportion of CPC members have indicated that time is running out for such pale blue conservatism.

As with Canada, so with the UK. Boris Johnson picks the easy fights where he knows he will get social conservative support such as Land of Hope and Glory at the Proms, but on major issues he is little different from his predecessors. There is no real purpose in having a UK Conservative Party if it’s not a conservative party. A Conservative Party which is an echo chamber for the progressive elites running the BBC or which is a slightly less deranged version of the Lib Dems is about as useful as an inflatable dartboard.

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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