Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives face critical Toronto by-election tests

O’Toole’s maiden voyage as leader in the House played to good reviews, but with by-elections around the corner the stakes just got higher

Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole’s first speech in the House played to good reviews last week – at least, compared to his post-Throne Speech video message to Canadians.

O’Toole engaged in some customary slamming of the Liberals for advancing what he described as “social experiments” in the Throne Speech. He wasn’t entirely clear about which of the Liberal programs he considered “experiments.” That much was predictable.

What wasn’t was his first question in the House. That was on Indigenous reconciliation. That issue has never been the Conservative party’s calling card – although, it should be noted that it was Stephen Harper, O’Toole’s predecessor once removed, who apologized for Canada’s residential schools shame in 2008.

But compared to his post-Throne Speech video address to the nation – in which he went on his familiar anti-China tirade – O’Toole’s maiden voyage as leader in the House was a little different than what’s come to be expected from the Cons.

Still, O’Toole finds himself playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

On the one hand, he needs to feed the red-meat-eaters in his base. On the other, he has to navigate closer to the political middle to broaden the party’s appeal.

And so it was on Wednesday. At the same time as O’Toole was blasting government for its pandemic response, his party also joined others in unanimously endorsing the Liberals’ latest pandemic aid package.

During his speech, O’Toole turned to personal attacks on Trudeau. The emasculation of the PM has been a popular go-to for the Cons. And for all his talk of focusing on what matters most to Canadians, O’Toole couldn’t help himself. “What Canada needs is a handyman, not a poster boy,” he said.

It’s not the most exciting imagery. O’Toole seems to have a need to man-up his public image as it were. Besides the handyman sloganeering, there’s the party’s new Top Gun/Canadian Air Force-inspired logo.

Despite the bombast and chest-thumping over the Throne Speech, the truth is the Conservatives are happy not to be going to the polls.

There are still internal party divisions from a contentious leadership race to iron out. Then there’s the emergence of the Maverick Party (formerly the Wexit Party) out West.

Coincidentally, the Maverick Party announced on Monday that it will be running candidates in some 49 Conservative strongholds out West. A number of former Reform MPs, including the party’s current interim leader Jay Hill, are behind that effort.

The news would seem to spell trouble for the Cons whenever we next go to the polls.

But there’s a more immediate test on the horizon that will take the measure of just where the party is at in the minds of the electorate.

By-elections in two Toronto ridings – Toronto Centre and York Centre – are scheduled for October 26. The Liberals currently hold both seats.

But the departure of Bill Morneau in Toronto Centre and the resignation of Michael Levitt in York Centre has left openings. Can the Conservatives capitalize?

The party hasn’t held Toronto Centre since 1993. Morneau won the riding handily in 2015 and again in 2019. Each time he tallied more than 57 per cent of the vote. In both instances, the Cons finished a distant third to the NDP.

But Morneau’s departure under a cloud has raised the stakes for the Libs.

The Libs’ appointment of CTV broadcaster Marci Ien to run in the riding hasn’t been met with open arms by all Liberals. She was appointed after TD Bank exec Paul Saguil declared his intention to run for the nomination.

A similar scenario is playing out in York Centre.

There the Liberals have chosen Ya’ara Saks to fill the vacancy left by Levitt. (He resigned his seat in August to take over as president and CEO of the Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal.)

But here too there’s consternation in Liberal ranks. A number of candidates, including the provincial Liberal party’s former chief fundraiser, Bobby Walman, had declared their intentions to run in the riding. They were left out in the cold when Saks’s selection was announced on September 17.

York Centre would seem a winnable riding for the Conservatives. Mark Adler held the seat under Harper between 2011 and 2015. PC MPP Roman Baber currently holds the seat provincially. Baber was one of three candidates reportedly considering a run for the Conservatives in the riding.

But Baber has begged off. So too has Rachel Willson. She was Andrew Scheer’s choice to run in the riding in 2019 and finished some 6,000 votes behind Levitt.

But she seemingly didn’t like her own chances this time around. The Conservatives have nominated Julius Tiangson instead. His only previous stab at electoral politics was back in 2015 when he ran unsuccessfully for the party in Mississauga Centre, finishing a distant second.

But he has the advantage this time of connections to the growing Filipino community in York Centre.

The fly in the ointment for the Conservatives is that Maxime Bernier has decided to plant his flag and run in York Centre as well. The former Conservative leadership candidate and current People’s Party leader may do more to hinder than help the Conservatives’ chances.

Either way, for O’Toole, the expectations are decidedly higher now. He sold himself during the leadership as the guy to win seats for the party in the GTA. It’s time to deliver.


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