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Having convinced right-wing Conservatives,O’Toole now has to sell himself to Canadians

Andrew Scheer having been seen as an unknown who worked the convention angles to become an ineffective leader who failed to capitalize on the weakened Liberals in the last federal election, the Conservatives last week chose an unknown who worked the convention angles to come the party’s new leader.

Erin O’Toole is known within party circles, but didn’t have the name recognition of the race’s frontrunner, Peter MacKay, not that the MacKay brand was stellar.

O’Toole courted right-wing populists and social conservatives to emerge as the winner on the third ballot, taking just 57 per cent of the vote. Seen as something of a moderate since being elected in 2012 as the MP for Durham, he focused on moving to the right in seeking the leadership. His ties to increasingly unpopular positions could prove to be a problem, as he’ll be defined by those positions to Canadians to whom he’s otherwise an unknown. With the potential for an election as soon as this fall after Justin Trudeau’s minority government delivers a throne speech, there may be little time for O’Toole to leave any other mark.

While right-wing issues may play in areas of Western alienation, centrist red Toryism has had better luck in central and eastern Canada. There’s no path to electoral victory that doesn’t go through Ontario and Quebec.

Making talking points of “cancel culture,” pandering to the media and “the radical left” might fly in red states south of the border, but aren’t likely to be a winning strategy in Canada.

While Canada hasn’t succumbed as deeply to dog-whistle politics, such issues are another strike against right-leaning parties … or should be, if voters weren’t as gullible to manipulation as they are.

Decades of history in this province and across the country – and more disastrously to the south – have shown us that ersatz conservative governments routinely abandon good fiscal management, streamlined government and the long-term public good in favour of electioneering, misguided ideology and payoffs to corporate backers. Just like pretty much every other mainstream political party, though often with more self-righteous hypocrisy.

But fear, anxiety and uncertainty can be used against voters. We’ve seen that repeatedly in the States, but U.S. voters aren’t the only weak link. Those Britons who voted to leave the EU were overwhelmingly those who felt marginalized economically and culturally, the result of a weakening economy, lack of jobs, poorer prospects and lack of affordable housing, much of the blame for which was heaped on the EU and, rightly or wrongly, on visible minorities – plenty of people aren’t happy with the changing face of Britain.

On a larger scale, the “Leave” vote was an indictment of globalization and neoliberalism. People no longer trust politicians, bureaucrats and those labelled elites to serve the public good – rather, those in charge serve themselves and their paymasters.

A certain number of voters are realizing they’ve been conned – by politicians of all stripes, actually,  but the con has been more insidious on the right. A few have cottoned on to saying-one-thing-then-and-doing-the-opposite technique, realizing the populism was BS-ism. All talk and no action – certainly not any action that was beneficial to the deluded masses.

Again, there’s a simple pattern to be found. Right-wing governments tend to cut spending on things we benefit from, spend on things we don’t, run deficits, privatize assets to the benefit of a few supporters and deregulate where a watchful eye is needed. And that doesn’t even address the distasteful fundamentalist positions and social conservatism, which have crept into Canadian politics at times.

Taking ideology out of the mix, particularly social conservatism, would be a boon to Canadians, but we still don’t know how a Conservative government will act once in power.

No matter what the ideological position, parties attempt to gain power by saying what they think will win them enough votes. Sometimes the effort doesn’t matter much, as voters are eager for a change – look to Ontario’s 2018 election for a clear indication of that. But mostly what we get are platitudes, misdirection and a whole lot of saying-one-thing-then-and-doing-the-opposite, the latter patently obvious with one Donald J. Trump.

Conservatives, in particular, have been guilty of speaking untruths to hide their true intentions, a pattern that long predates Trump’s administration, though it does take the cake for outright lying. Those who vote for right-leaning parties usually do so against their own self-interest, so it requires a great deal of lies, appeals to base instincts (racism, sexism, etc.) and fear-mongering, with the three usually tied together into a package, augmented by fraud, voter suppression, gerrymandering and a host of other anti-democratic tricks.

Fear-mongering is especially effective. It’s responsible for Republicans being elected in the U.S., for the Brexit fiasco and rise of fascist-inspired populism elsewhere in Europe. Anti-immigrant attitudes are the basis of the fear fomented by politicians. Such concerns are widespread enough to result in electoral victories, as right-wing parties are typically the beneficiaries.

O’Toole’s acceptance speech was far more inclusive and conciliatory than anything coming out of the U.S. right, but it will be interesting to see if he moves the party to the center after campaigning from the right. And we’ll be watching to see how beholden he is to the more extreme elements of the party he courted in his bid to claim the leadership.

O’Toole will have to walk a fine line between the unpalatable positions of those who supported him and a desire to see a Conservative government elected some day. Positioning the party too far to the right will likely keep it in opposition until such time as Canadians really grow tired of the Liberals – the Tories are typically the fallback plan for voters.

While Canadians may see both the NDP and the Green party as offering platforms and direction superior to the Conservatives, neither is able to mount a real run at forming a government. The catch-22 – the majority of Canadians won’t vote for the parties because they can’t win; they can’t win because people won’t vote for them – has been widely discussed. The only option considered viable is the Conservative party, which historically has been the occasional counterfoil to a series of Liberal governments.

The party and its new leader have much to prove, though the key factor is waiting for the Liberals to fumble the ball.

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