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Federal Politics

How to Destroy the Conservative Brand

Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney and Erin O’Toole are conducting a master class in mess making.

Michael Harris 25 Nov

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

The Conservative Party of Canada’s slide into irrelevance has turned into a bobsled run.

There are many factors driving down the popularity of conservatism in Canada. Let’s unpack them.

Kenney’s calamities

Alberta United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney made two epic messes. Dealing with the pandemic by whistling past the graveyard. And pissing away millions of dollars trying to paint critics of the fossil fuel sector as enemies of Alberta (demonizing prophets in the name of profits).

When all was said and done, instead of being seen as the champion of Alberta, he’s come off looking like an uninformed clown on climate change and COVID-19. It’s just a question of who will get this former Stephen Harper cabinet star first: voters in the next election, or his own party.

Harper’s hay making

And then there are the comments and activities of former prime minister Stephen Harper, who clings to the public limelight like a fading movie star.

Recall that in the summer the persistent shadow he casts over the Conservative party intensified. He popped up in the news slamming “woke” culture and calling Justin Trudeau’s pandemic spending “overkill” — even as his consulting firm reportedly snapped up the available federal wage subsidy.

His rumblings so stirred Conservative imaginations that Maclean’s polled voters and concluded that his return to leadership might revive the party from its doldrums and make a race of the then looming fall election. Harper, intoned the magazine, would “attract support that’s not currently available to [Erin] O’Toole.”

This dream scenario failed to take into account Harper’s record since leaving office. First, he says he remains proud of selling $15 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia when he was PM. Never mind that the kingdom is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Who would boast about selling weapons to a region that is a precarious tinderbox? Jobs here, for repression somewhere else? Sound Canadian to you?

Harper also attended Davos in the Desert, hosted by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the leader who U.S. intelligence and the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions believe was involved in the slaughter of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2, 2018. Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey by a 15-member hit squad that flew in from Riyadh for the job.

Who would want to be in an audience of business leaders who gave MBS a standing ovation?

Conservative saviour? In the harsh glare of an actual election, would not a significant number of voters be repelled by some of Harper’s business deals as a senior member of AWZ Ventures? The former PM heads up an advisory committee at AWZ trying to sell cutting edge surveillance technology to the United Arab Emirates, which also has a dreadful human rights record. AWZ also finances Israeli spy craft technology.

No wonder Harper had nothing to say when the Biden administration recently blacklisted one of the very Israeli spyware companies, NSO Group, whose goods the former PM was trying to hawk to dictators. The commerce department concluded that NSO’s phone-hacking tools were being used by foreign governments to “maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy works.”

The decision by the U.S. commerce department means that all exports from the U.S. to NSO of any type of hardware or software are prohibited. Why? Because it is part of the Biden administration’s “efforts to put human rights at the centre of U.S. foreign policy, including by working to stem the proliferation of digital tools used for repression.”

Erin's reign of errors

Against that backdrop, it’s time to turn to Erin O’Toole, the man who has plunged the CPC into a leadership dilemma and a branding crisis.

O’Toole has flailed away at Trudeau with the obvious purpose of drawing attention away from his embattled leadership, dismal election results and uncertain relationship with party members.

O’Toole announced that the CPC will be voting against the speech from the throne, and all of its progressive measures. A few months ago, on the campaign trail, he often sounded more like Tommy Douglas than a former Harper cabinet minister. Which confused, because that was a reversal from the social-conservative face he presented to his own party to win the leadership.

And now with the 44th session of Parliament underway, O’Toole has apparently returned to Harperland, the place where one never regulates the energy sector, and climate change is a hoax. O’Toole again sounds like Jason Kenney on caffeine overload.

It comes down to this. The man is so politically flexible no one knows what he really stands for, including his own base. Or if he stands for anything at all, other than winning power.

O’Toole used the throne speech to rededicate his party to the fossil fuel industry and to putting everyone to work. How clever is that? Canadians just chose climate action, Indigenous reconciliation and the management of the pandemic over his plan by a wide margin. O’Toole has ignored their verdict.

Did this guy watch anything coming out of COP26? Did he miss the weather Armageddon in British Columbia? Or on the East Coast? Has he read a single report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Does he realize that teenagers across the country and around the world are more in touch with what is needed from our politicians than he is?

Hip-hip-hooray for the oil patch and jobs, jobs, jobs worked once upon a time, but planetary peril and a pandemic have changed all that. There is a reason that the CPC has lost three elections in a row and is setting itself up for a fourth. It’s time for them to stop following the oil money and start following the science.

It is also time for them to stop using U.S. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s style of politics by demonizing everything the other side does.

That is O’Toole’s tactic. And so he tells us that the country is suffering from “Trudeau inflation.” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner even implied the PM was responsible for the price of chicken. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that COVID-19 has led to inflation across the globe, based on the huge cost of fighting the pandemic as well as other factors.

The pandemic has played hell with the supply chain, with the result that too much money is chasing too few goods. That too drives up prices. Trudeau may drive Conservatives crazy, but he doesn’t drive inflation.

It is incompetent to say that Trudeau and his environment minister, Steven Guilbeault, want to deny the energy sector the “opportunity” to supply the world with Alberta oil. The Liberals are talking about capping emissions, not shutting down production.

It is beyond fiction to say, as O’Toole does, that such increased oil sales will lower CO2 emissions. This week, CNN gave the Bullshit Factory Employee of the Year Award to Fox News host Tucker Carlson. It’s a good thing for O’Toole no such award is offered in Canada.

And even at this late stage, the Conservative leader refuses to answer two simple, legitimate questions related to the ongoing pandemic: How many of his caucus members are vaccinated? And how many may be seeking medical exemptions?

O’Toole argues that he can’t answer on the grounds of medical confidentiality, but that is nonsense. No one is asking for their names and addresses, merely a number. More faux pandering to a base he deserted in the last election in an attempt to re-establish his social conservative credentials.

It is beginning to look like O’Toole is entering the spite and malice phase of a ruthless effort to save his leadership. Using his control, at least for now, of the Opposition leader’s office and the apparatus of the party, O’Toole has acted quickly against anyone who has questioned his authority.

Look what he did when member of the party’s national council Bert Chen started a petition to expeditiously review O’Toole’s leadership after his electoral flip-flop and flop. Chen was ostensibly thrown under the bus by the party, and O’Toole would have Canadians believe he had nothing to do with it. Right.

Look what O’Toole did when Saskatchewan Conservative Sen. Denise Batters also launched a petition calling for an early review of his leadership. He fired her by voicemail for having the audacity to suggest a course of action entirely consistent with the party’s constitution. Her public statement that led to her removal from the caucus may yet come back to haunt him:

“O’Toole has reversed his own positions from his leadership campaign, betrayed Conservative principles, lost seats in the election, and cannot win the next election.”

Of course, O’Toole may yet hold on to his job with the help of his friends, Big Kahuna Tories like former Ontario premier Mike Harris, and a ready supply of caucus toadies hoping to turn loyalty to the current leader into benefits on the short term.

On Wednesday, just before O’Toole explained to the Conservative caucus why he culled Batters from their herd, B.C. MP Bob Zimmer gave him a present. It was a hockey jersey from fellow Tory MPs signalling that O’Toole remains “our captain.”

Captain of the Conservative team Erin O’Toole may still be. But mounting damage to the party’s brand means this dude will never be Captain Canada.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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