Toronto Star

O’Toole pandering to worst in Tories

- Bob Hepburn Bob Hepburn is a Star politics columnist and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @BobHepburn

Given how little most Canadians know about Erin O’Toole, it’s critical that the Conservati­ve leader quickly show them what he’s really made of and why they should vote for him and his party in the next election.

As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

So far for O’Toole, that first impression isn’t very impressive.

Since he won the leadership in late August, the Conservati­ve party has increasing­ly become the home of farright conspiraci­sts, COVID-19 antivaxxer­s, emboldened hard-line gun lovers and politician­s spouting antisocial­ist hysterics.

Through all of this, O’Toole has tried to appease the worst elements in the Conservati­ve fold by issuing vague statements that say nothing, neither condemning nor praising the actors who are now defining the party as it prepares to fight the coming election.

First, O’Toole has refused to condemn Tory MP Derek Sloan for sponsoring a nationwide petition championed by anti-vaxxers that spreads falsehoods about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

Instead, O’Toole insists it is the Liberals’ “incompeten­ce” that’s to blame for Canadians’ fears about the vaccines. Right now, this tacit support for the anti-vaxxer crowd is about the only thing people are talking about when it comes to the Conservati­ves.

Second, O’Toole has given free rein to Conservati­ve finance critic Pierre Poilievre, his most senior MP, to flirt with the conspiracy crowd by becoming a cheerleade­r for far-right loonies who have convinced themselves that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other global elites are plotting to impose a socialist order on the world.

In recent weeks, Poilievre has gone to vast lengths to demonize what’s called the “Great Reset,” a simple, non-offensive vision by the World Economic Forum that suggests the COVID-19 pandemic provides a chance to adopt policies to reduce economic inequality around the globe.

And what has O’Toole done to convince Canadians he doesn’t agree with Poilievre and the conspiraci­sts? Nothing!

Third, far-right Conservati­ves love to toss the word “socialist” at Liberals and progressiv­es, firing up their base and suggesting Canada is heading toward destructio­n. During the Trump presidency, the smearing of “socialists” has become more common in Canada.

The best example was a recent column in the National Post by Leslyn Lewis, who finished third in the Tory leadership race and will be the Tory candidate in the Ontario riding of HaldimanNo­rfolk. Lewis warned in excitable language that Trudeau is leading “a socialist coup” in Canada, which she described as “a quiet and bloodless revolution that seeks to control our lives through economic dependency,” right down to confiscati­ng part of your retirement savings.

Fourth, O’Toole has done nothing to distance himself from the vitriol spewed by pro-gun lobbyists. For example, Tracey Wilson, a lobbyist for the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, who brags about having met several times with O’Toole, took to Twitter recently to call families affected by the deadly 2018 Danforth shootings “buffoons” and “ghouls” for advocating for tighter gun measures. From O’Toole, there was only silence.

Overall, O’Toole’s strategy of giving wide latitude to these elements may play well with Conservati­ve voters who reside in ridings long held by Tory MPs. But it’s highly questionab­le whether his appeasemen­t tactics will translate into gains in urban and suburban ridings where the party so desperatel­y needs to make inroads.

All of this makes O’Toole look as if he is either a willing accomplice in these approaches, or a captive of those who espouse them. Either way, he’s coming across as an unprepared amateur who may be playing right into the Liberals’ hands.

If O’Toole hopes to close the gap with the Liberals, he should disavow the nuttiness within his shadow cabinet, his caucus and his new candidates.

Maybe O’Toole needs be reminded of the saying: You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

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