At the end of August 2020, Erin O’Toole was elected leader of the Federal Progressive Conservative Party to a chorus of angst on the progressive left. His courting of the social conservative wing of the party, his “Take Canada Back” campaign slogan, and his declared intention to pursue “Canada First” economic policies have led some to dub him the “Trump of the North.”
But, as ever, American politics never really maps on neatly to Canada’s political realities. O’Toole has stated he is pro-choice, has claimed he would march in Pride, and affirmed his commitment to the Paris Climate Change Commitments.
Canadian women have the ability to make or break a political party’s fortunes. Recent polling found that while male voters are evenly split between their intention to vote Liberal and PC (36/37), female voters skew heavily liberal (47/23). Meanwhile, recent polls show that the Liberals and PCs are in a statistical tie: if we end up in a Fall election, it would behoove O’Toole to pay attention to that gap.
Canadian women have the ability to make or break a political party’s fortunes.
What issues matter to Canadian women?
Suffice it to say, to speak of more than 50% of the population as a unified voting bloc is basically meaningless. There are the traditional “women’s issues” that will have salience for many women: gender-based violence, sexual assault and harassment, economic equality, leadership and representation, abortion, and so on. But a woman’s intersectional identities and lived experiences will, of course, colour her political priorities. From climate change, to Indigenous land and water rights, to Black Lives Matter, individual women are engaged by all the pressing matters of the era.
Caveat aside, it’s clear that any forthcoming election will centre on the pandemic and its devastating economic fallout. The Great Recession was sometimes dubbed the “mancession,” but the particular circumstances of our current predicament have arguably hit women harder. The disparity in the amount of unpaid labour performed by women has only deepened in the COVID-era, when many women are straddling fractured childcare situations and the vagaries of remote working.
A moderate in True Blue clothing
Women’s deciding role in Canadian politics and their current economic and social hardships are surely occupying the best and the brightest at Conservative HQ who will be strategizing how to reach and engage these voters.
Throughout the leadership campaign, O’Toole attempted to speak out of both sides of his mouth. He is a “True Blue” conservative… who in his acceptance speech stated his desire to earn the trust of all Canadians. He is pro-choice… but would allow his cabinet to vote their conscience. He makes the right noises about needing to stamp out racism, and supporting and including LGBTQ folks… but he refuses to say whether he thinks systemic racism exists in Canada and his much vaunted statement that he would march in pride is conditional on police being allowed to march in uniform. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the ways in which his “moderate” credentials have been matched by signals to his new socially conservative base.
Throughout the leadership campaign, O’Toole attempted to speak out of both sides of his mouth.
O’Toole seems to be attempting to achieve party unity through telling everyone what he thinks they want to hear. He’s a true blue conservative with the right wing of his party, and he’s a cuddly moderate when he’s trying to woo voters back to the Conservatives.
As he introduces himself to Canadian voters, O’Toole will be hoping to shape his own narrative. His play appears to be to shake off the “stinking albatross” of Andrew Scheer’s time at the helm through a combination of platitudes, focus on “family-friendly” policies, and capitalizing on the woes of scandal-prone Trudeau. Will this be enough to win all-important women voters over?
At the moment, it’s too early to tell. An early online survey suggested that many Canadians don’t really know who O’Toole is, but when presented with some of his policy positions (without the caveats around them) they were open to supporting the new Conservative leader. But O’Toole’s gambit will only succeed if he can keep control of the narrative. And not only will the Liberals and NDP be rushing to define O’Toole — the right of his own party, so recently wooed, may expect their support to be repaid.
O’Toole’s ability to persuade women — and his political future — may depend on his ability to navigate these contradictions of his own making.