When Erin O’Toole released the Conservative Party’s list of election promises last month, at least one experienced political strategist was stumped.
“I saw nothing that would help them win the election,” David Herle, the well-known Liberal adviser, told Politico. “No big tax cut. No serious affordability initiative.”
O’Toole’s people would no doubt quibble with such a broad dismissal. The 83-page document is full of bullet points and nearly every section is presented as a “detailed plan” to address one concern or another.
But Herle was not wrong when he saw a certain lack of eye-catching content. Of the dozens of commitments contained in the Conservative platform, it would be hard to identify one as dramatic or defining. With the possible exception of an increase in health transfers to the provinces, no big or sudden moves are being promised.
In 2019, for example, the Conservatives promised to implement a permanent cut in income taxes for all Canadians and to fully repeal the federal carbon price. Two years later, O’Toole is offering neither.
O’Toole as the low-risk option
But any big promises might have undermined what O’Toole seems most anxious to project during this campaign: reassurance. Whatever the merits of the individual commitments in the Conservative platform, O’Toole’s primary use of it has been to insist at every opportunity that he has a “plan” (though he has yet to release a costing of said plan).
Beyond its targeted promises, the theme of the Conservative campaign is security and its goal seems to be to establish O’Toole as a serious and relatively risk-free option.
Which might explain why the Conservative campaign has more to say this time about some of the major issues that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have emphasized over the last six years — and less to say about some of the things O’Toole said he’d do when he ran for the Conservative leadership last year.
The question now — as O’Toole struggles to untangle himself from one of those old promises — is whether that’s enough for O’Toole’s party to win a plurality of seats on Sept. 20.
WATCH: Erin O’Toole shifts his stance on firearms
An O’Toole government surely would talk and act differently than a Trudeau government. The phrase “systemic racism” appears a dozen times in the Liberal platform but isn’t mentioned in the Conservative platform. O’Toole is promising new funding for the provinces for health care — possibly even more than the Liberals are offering — but would transfer that money without strings attached.
Letting the budget balance itself
How that funding fits into a fiscal plan that’s supposed to move toward a balanced budget is an unanswered question. And O’Toole’s plan also includes one overlooked promise that could lead to the sort of big, structural change he isn’t talking about right now: the appointment of an expert panel to review the federal tax system. During the Conservative leadership race, O’Toole said such a review would be meant to “reduce” and “flatten” taxes in Canada.
But O’Toole has sought to narrow some of the hypothetical differences between his party and the Liberals. He has, for instance, had more to say about climate change, reconciliation and inequality than his predecessor Andrew Scheer did. O’Toole also has his own offer on child care.
While talking about the need to control spending, O’Toole is avoiding a hard line on the federal budget — setting a ten-year timeline for getting back to balance and insisting that increased economic growth would raise revenues enough to make deep cuts unnecessary. When Trudeau said virtually the same thing in 2015, the Conservatives mocked him mercilessly.
O’Toole can’t say he would do as much as Trudeau is doing or would do. On climate change, for instance, O’Toole would have Canada return to the greenhouse gas emissions targets that Stephen Harper set in 2015. While he is offering to expand the child care expense deduction, he would cancel the Liberal government’s plans to create more child care spaces and lower fees.
Selling change to an anxious electorate
Those are not insignificant differences. But O’Toole’s platform seems designed to appeal to an imagined swing voter who is tired of Justin Trudeau but still wants to be reassured that at least something will be done about things like climate change.
Overall, O’Toole might want to be seen as the more humble, practical candidate. And after the last six years, there might be an appetite for something a little less exciting. But uninteresting is not what O’Toole has been over the last several days — and it’s not what O’Toole promised to be when he ran for the Conservative leadership in 2020.
WATCH: The potential impact of campaign platform reversals
Back then, O’Toole said he was going to defend conservative voices against “cancel culture” and the “radical left” — and would make federal funding for universities contingent on those institutions accepting certain principles of free speech.
In his leadership platform, O’Toole promised to use the notwithstanding clause to overrule the courts on some mandatory minimum penalties, introduce a “National Strategic Pipelines Act” to speed up the approval of new pipelines, pass a law requiring that any new government spending be paired with corresponding cuts, reduce funding to CBC’s English TV services by half, and eliminate the Court Challenges Program.
At the time, O’Toole was running as a “true blue” Conservative who claimed he wanted to “take back Canada.” A bit of that O’Toole might have been still in evidence last November when he spoke to campus Conservatives at Ryerson University and made comments about residential schools that he later had to retract.
But when it came time to present a platform for the general electorate, all of the above items were either forgotten entirely or significantly watered down. The Conservative platform says O’Toole would, for instance, merely “work with” provinces to ensure universities promote free speech.
One of the leadership promises that did remain intact was a commitment to repeal the Trudeau government’s order to ban 1,500 “assault-style” firearms. But now, in response to Liberal criticisms over the past week, O’Toole has contorted himself. His new position seems to be that he would repeal the order but maintain the ban, then subject that ban to a review.
(This isn’t the first time O’Toole has edited a platform after publication. During the leadership race, he put in writing and then renounced a commitment to end subsidies for fossil fuel industries.)
The half-retreat on firearms might display a certain gift for “tactical flexibility,” as one columnist wrote this week. But such flexibility also makes it harder to feel confident about exactly how O’Toole would govern.