October 19, 2020

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Expanding Conservative support is O'Toole's challenge

Editorial

Anti-Abortion Conservatives made the difference in the Conservative Party leadership race that concluded on Sunday, giving former veterans affairs minister Erin O’Toole a wide margin of victory over former justice minister Peter MacKay.

Mr. O’Toole will now have to handle the abortion issue more adroitly than Andrew Scheer did when he led the party in last year’s general election.

The role of anti-abortion Conservatives in the leadership race was evident in the voting figures.

Mr. O’Toole and Mr. MacKay each attracted about 11,000 votes on the first ballot, while another 11,000 were split between two anti-abortion candidates, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan.

On the third ballot, after Mr. Sloan and then Ms. Lewis were dropped, the anti-abortion votes broke for Mr. O’Toole, giving him the victory with 19,271 to Mr. MacKay’s 14,528.

In last year’s general election, Mr. Scheer seemed evasive when asked in televised debates about his own private convictions about abortion, saying only that he would not reopen the issue. He had won the leadership with support from anti-abortion groups. His evasions, Mr. MacKay said at the time, hung around the party’s neck like a stinking albatross.

During the leadership campaign, Mr. MacKay talked mainly about economic policy. "I am pro-choice. I am for equal marriage. I am not going to restrict access (to abortion). I am willing to march in a parade. But people want to talk about the economy," he told reporters during a stop in Regina.

One-third of the leadership votes, however, were cast by people who wanted to talk about abortion and same-sex marriage. They apparently thought Mr. O’Toole was more open to their point of view. Despite having described himself as personally pro-choice and in favour of marriage equality, Mr. O’Toole has pledged to allow free votes on matters of conscience.

Opinion polls suggest that about 75 per cent of Canadians are satisfied with Canadian law on abortion as it stands, and are also content to let same-sex couples marry. A majority of the Conservative parliamentary caucus, including longer-serving members, backed Mr. MacKay and his pro-choice stand. They have now been given a leader who won the position through the support of social conservatives.

Mr. O’Toole must either find a better quality of fudge or else turn his back on the social conservatives and find his new friends elsewhere.

Mr. O’Toole needs to win new friends for his party. He will not find many among people who want to restrict access to abortion or among those who object to same-sex marriage. Those people already look to the Conservative Party as their favoured political vehicle. They were not numerous enough to produce a Conservative victory last year. They were, however, sufficiently motivated and well organized that they made Mr. O’Toole the party leader on Sunday. That’s a hard group of supporters to ignore.

The usual solution in such a case is to fudge the issue — delay, evade, change the subject. Fudging, however, did not work last year for Mr. Scheer. His fudge turned into the stinking albatross whose aroma offended Mr. MacKay.

Mr. O’Toole must either find a better quality of fudge or else turn his back on the social conservatives and find his new friends elsewhere.

For the country at large, Mr. O’Toole offers hope that the ruling Liberal government will at last face an effective opposition that will speak for a wide section of Canadian opinion and hold Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accountable for his faults.

Canada needs an opposition party with a decent chance of winning the next election. Mr. O’Toole and his colleagues should focus on becoming that party.

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