By: Barbara Howe
About 80 party members and friends gave up their Saturday afternoon by the fire and trekked through snow banks in frigid temperatures to listen to Erin O’Toole, a contender in the Conservative leadership election. The crowd heard the Durham MP speak about a Conservative party with a “fresh new vision” at a meet-and-greet at The Venue bar in downtown Peterborough.
“I am not going to let Justin Trudeau have the monopoly on optimism,” declared O’Toole Feb. 11.
The Bowmanville resident threw his hat into the ring last October to succeed interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who took on the role after Stephen Harper resigned as leader.
According to O’Toole, the Tories lost to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals because the party was perceived as negative and mean-spirited.
O’Toole said since the Liberals took office a year ago, a budget surplus of $1 million has turned into a deficit of more than $30 billion.
“We will start telling a positive vision that we have for the country, which begins with jobs… and lower taxes in supporting businesses, not hindering them,” said O’Toole. “And if we’re painting that positive image, people will come back.”
Since O’Toole announced his candidacy, the leadership podium has become crowded, with 14 hopefuls vying for the job. The most prominent contender, TV personality and businessman Kevin O’Leary, joined the race in January.
O’Leary is the front-runner, according to a Forum Research poll which indicated he led by 27 per cent.
But Paul Adams, associate professor of journalism and communications at Carleton University with expertise in Canadian politics and polling, believes the polling is flawed.
“It’s a ranked ballot,” said Adams. “If O’Leary got, let’s say 27 per cent… he wouldn’t win on that. He would need to collect votes from other candidates who dropped off the ballot.”
With no political experience, O’Leary’s candidacy bears some resemblance to Donald Trump’s emergence in the 2015 Republican leadership race south of the border.
However, O’Toole said he is not concerned about O’Leary’s presence in the race.
“He’s a lifelong Liberal and contributed to the Liberal Party in Durham. Most of his positions, including his support for a carbon tax, are Liberal positions,” said O’Toole of O’Leary. “You can be a celebrity, but you should be a Conservative if you’re running to lead the Conservatives.”
According to Melanie Paradis, O’Toole’s communications director, the leadership will not be won on the first ballot.
“It will likely take several rounds for one candidate to get 50 per cent of the vote,” Paradis said.
The leadership process is far from straightforward. In each round, the person with the fewest number of votes is eliminated.
The ultimate winner could emerge by gathering votes from candidates who are ousted from the race.
According to Paradis, this may work in O’Toole’s favour if he is the second-choice contender on ballots endorsing an eliminated candidate.
“It’s complicated math, but Erin is very well-positioned,” said Paradis.
This scenario is not unprecedented. In 1976, Joe Clark was trailing in third place before emerging victorious as Conservative leader.
O’Toole has credentials which stand him in good stead to win the race, and potentially become prime minister.
First elected in 2012 in a byelection, O’Toole held the position of parliamentary secretary for the minister of international affairs and helped negotiate trade agreements between Canada and the U.K. as well as South Korea. Re-elected in the general election of 2015, he held a cabinet post in the Harper administration as veterans affairs minister.
Former Peterborough MPP Gary Stewart supports O’Toole and attended the meet-and-greet event.
“He’s got military experience, political experience…[is] a family man, [has] a great background and [has] an excellent chance,” said Stewart.
Jim Birchall, a former Conservative supporter, said despite his values now lining up with the Green Party, he is still interested in O’Toole’s election campaign.
“I want Erin O’Toole to get in, based on his experience and education, he’s the right man for the job,” said Birchall. “O’Leary’s not really prime ministerial. We don’t want another Trump. [O’Toole’s] got the right stuff.”
At 44, O’Toole is a year younger than Justin Trudeau. He is a proven communicator and speaks French adequately, if not fluently. He has ties with Atlantic Canada; he went to Dalhousie University in Halifax and was stationed in Nova Scotia as a helicopter pilot in the military.
O’Toole needs the support of party members from across the country to sway the Conservatives to elect him as the man to take over the reins in the next general election.
According to Paradis, O’Toole now has the backing of 21 MPs from across Canada, seven former MPs and one former leadership contender, Winnipeg MP Dr. Daniel Lindsay.
“In the past few weeks, more MPs have endorsed Erin from Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. He has the majority of Manitoba’s MPs supporting him as well,” said Paradis.
The success in the leadership race may depend on the candidates’ campaign fundraising successes. Latest figures from Elections Canada, published in January, show O’Toole standing as the fourth highest fundraiser, behind Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, Ontario MP Kellie Leitch and Saskachewan MP Andrew Scheer.
The competition may become stiffer with millionaire O’Leary now in contention.
The final vote to decide the next Conservative leader is on May 27. In the meantime, O’Toole is busy gaining support on his campaign trail across the country.