Erin O’Toole, who was fired as Conservative leader in February, sounds a little worried these days.
“Whoever the next leader is … he’s going to have to find the right balance between conservative, conventional politics and populism,” O’Toole told CBC Radio. House in an interview airing this weekend.
“And I believe that as leaders, we should channel people’s frustrations into positive change, not fuel the fire.”
O’Toole told an anecdote about a recent community gathering while on horseback.
“People come to me with things they read on social media, conspiracies, ideas and frustrations. What I’m trying to do is say, “OK, let’s get this over with, because what you’re seeing isn’t true.” he said. “Whoever wins will have to find the right balance.”
Referring to the influence of American culture and the effects of Western alienation, rural troubles and pandemic fatigue, O’Toole said that conservatives need to “think of positive change, not escalate anger.”
“Anyone who wins will have to find the right balance for the welfare of the country. That’s what I’ve always tried to say to my congregation.”
LISTEN: Erin O’Toole gives her first media interview since she was fired as Conservative leader
CBC News: Home23:06Erin O’Toole’s advice to conservatives
He said he hoped the next Conservative leader would “understand that the country is in a troubled state, but come up with a plan to fix those differences.”
O’Toole’s comments raise important questions for his party and for candidates vying to succeed him as leader.
They also point to the big question for moderate conservatives: what will they do if the next conservative leader doesn’t find the right balance?
“Rage Populism” Warning
What O’Toole is saying now is reminiscent of what he said earlier this year when it became clear he was facing a vote on his leadership. At the time, he said that the Conservative Party should choose between two paths —between being “evil, negative and extreme” and being a party of “inclusiveness, optimism, ideas and hope”.
O’Toole was not in the party leadership race and still refrains from commenting on specific candidates or proposals. But his interview with The House followed some scathing comments he made last week about podcast hosted by Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
“There will always be an element of populism in politics — there will be the question, ‘What are people passionate about?’” said O’Toole Erskine-Smith. “But what worries me is the populism of anger, frustration or upheaval… that can undermine institutions, it can undermine national unity. And so I think this is something that all candidates should be aware of.”
O’Toole pointed to “something on the Internet about the World Economic Forum and things like that.” (The World Economic Forum is a perennially popular topic of conspiracy theories.)
“Here, people want to put the blame on something … Here you have to be very careful not to expose some kind of scarecrow as the reason why you have problems with paying bills or something with inflation,” he added.
“Presenting a plan for solving these problems is what I think a conservative should do… You should present your solutions to these problems and try to turn that frustration into positive action, not just make the frustration worse.”
“We are not fully insured”
All leadership candidates are seeing public unrest, O’Toole said, and they need to deal with it responsibly. Finding a balance between traditional conservative principles and “that populist element” is what “all centre-right parties in democracies are fighting,” he said.
He said it was sad to see what was happening to the traditional conservative parties in France and in the United States.
“I think Canada, we have been pretty much immune to some of them, but we are not completely immune. And I think that all members of our party, especially elected officials, I have often said that we cannot let the tail wag the dog. “We must present responsible leadership, responsible decisions and try to turn this frustration into positive action,” O’Toole said.
But what if the tail still wags the dog? What if the next Conservative leader doesn’t offer responsible leadership? What will O’Toole do then?
A decision moderate conservatives may face
We’ve come a long way from the days when top party leaders could have a decisive influence on leadership struggles – and that’s basically a change for the better. But this does not mean that deputies and party elders are powerless or relieved of responsibility when the democratic choice of a new leader takes the party in a politically risky or even dangerous direction.
They could, for example, leave the party. Or speak up. Or both.
The Conservative Party’s own history will always frame these questions in terms of party unity. If the party makes a sharp turn to the populist right and subsequently falls in the opinion polls, conservatives will be worried about their electoral prospects. But such a shift in political polarization could also point to broader questions about the health of Canadian democracy.
O’Toole and other conservatives would certainly say that if anyone is to blame for political unrest and divisions, it is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This is debatable. But even if you think this is true, it only places more responsibility on other leaders to act responsibly. No promote division, support conspiracies, or undermine institutions.
This is not an abstract issue. AT How democracies die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat reflect on the value of “fences” in a democracy. While they acknowledge that the American primary system prevented parties from completely blocking a presidential candidate, they argue that Donald Trump could have lost the 2016 election if Republican leaders had “strongly broken” with him and backed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The Republican Party has gone so far that it is incomparable. Even bringing it as a point of reference may seem like an exaggeration of any problem that might exist in Canadian politics. But supporters don’t have to wait for someone like Donald Trump to show up before making a name for themselves.
The next leader of the Conservative Party might heed O’Toole’s advice. The conservative movement in Canada can avoid the fate of its distant relatives in other countries.
But if the party gets out of balance, conservatives like O’Toole will have to make some decisions.