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O’Toole set to helm first Conservative caucus meeting since winning leadership

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole introduces his Deputy Leader Candice Bergen as they holda a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole will lay out a mission statement for the Conservative party today at his first official caucus meeting since he won the leadership race last month.

Hints of the tone and scope of his address to MPs, who will gather largely in person in Ottawa, were laid out in a Labour Day message posted to social media on Monday.

In it, O’Toole promises a “Canada First” economic strategy, which puts the wellness of families and higher wages, rather than GDP growth, at its core.

The populist message is expected to be reflected in his remarks to caucus as he moves forward with his promise to broaden the appeal of the Conservatives.

O’Toole took a step in that direction Tuesday with the unveiling of which MPs will serve as critics for the next session of Parliament, taking care to place visible minority, LGBTQ and female MPs on the front benches.

But today’s speech may also hold clues as to how his party will handle the potential showdown in Parliament after the minority Liberals present a throne speech on Sept. 23 that will trigger a vote of confidence.

O’Toole has already suggested bringing down the government is not his priority, and that he wants to keep his focus on ensuring economic support for Canadians.

On his roster of critics, he gave himself another role: critic for middle-class prosperity, a symbol of that focus.

The job, however, also takes a little dig at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, when he became prime minister, also appointed himself the minister for youth. One of O’Toole’s lines of argument has been that Trudeau’s focus has been misplaced.

The youth role was later handed over to Bardish Chagger after the 2019 federal election, when Trudeau also created the “middle-class prosperity” portfolio.

O’Toole won the leadership race over three other contenders on Aug. 24, after an hours-long delay in the release of results due to problems with the vote-counting machines.

He ran his campaign on a promise to “take Canada back,” using aggressive emails, social media memes and speeches more or less arguing the Liberals were driving the country into the ground and that he was best placed to turn it around.

The tone, however, has softened considerably since his victory, starting just minutes after he won.

Though he positioned himself as a “true blue” Conservative, a nod to more right-wing among the party’s grassroots, in his victory speech and since he’s pledged to build a party open to all.

In his speech, he had singled out union workers as being among those his party wants to court, and in his Labour Day message he appeared to speak to them anew. He referenced the fact his home riding was the home of the automotive sector, and that his own father spent years working for General Motors.

But unlike his predecessors who traditionally place blame for losses in the manufacturing sector on government policy, O’Toole expanded his own scope of criticism.

“Part of the problem is big business, corporate and financial power brokers who care more about their shareholders than their employees,” he said.

“They love trade deals with China that allow them to access cheap labour.”

O’Toole’s play for union votes reflects the fact that there are swing ridings in the country known to bounce between the Conservatives and the NDP, a party with historic roots within the union movement.

Many of those seats are in vote-rich Ontario and in British Columbia, and winning those ridings will be key for O’Toole should he hope for his party to form government in the next election.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


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