Strategists say Erin O’Toole must weigh if Jason Kenney is an asset or a liability


Last March, Peter MacKay was the clear front-runner in the race to lead the Conservative Party of Canada — the former Conservative cabinet minister led in polling and was racking up endorsements.

But Alberta Premier Jason Kenney broke with the majority on the right, endorsing MacKay’s chief rival Erin O’Toole, calling him “true blue” — a leader who, in Kenney’s view, could go on to win key parts of Canada in a federal election.

O’Toole, of course, went on to win the Conservative leadership. But as O’Toole charts a course forward for the Conservatives — and with Canadians divided over pipelines and Kenney navigating multiple simultaneous crises — is the premier an asset or a liability?

Melissa Caouette, a political strategist with the Canadian Strategy Group, told CBC’s West of Centre podcast that conservatives are winning with massive margins in Alberta and Saskatchewan at the expense of votes in the Greater Toronto Area and in Quebec.

“It probably does make sense from an electoral math perspective for O’Toole to move a little bit more to centre, and I think there’s still a path to victory if he does so,” Caouette said.

  • Listen to this week’s full episode of West of Centre here:

West of Centre38:25So long and thanks for all the votes

As Erin O’Toole charts a potential path to victory for the federal Conservatives, will Jason Kenney be an asset or a liability? 38:25

Expanding the base

Rob Russo, former parliamentary bureau chief with CBC News, told West of Centre that the history of conservatives in the past 30 to 40 years suggests those who succeed maintain their base while expanding it.

“You don’t have to go too far back. Stephen Harper expanded his base,” Russo said. “He made people who might not be comfortable voting Conservative, and particularly voting for him, feel a little bit more comfortable doing that.”

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney did the same, Russo noted, expanding the base of Conservative voters into Quebec. 

Russo said O’Toole could even take a page out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook, creating a wave of so-called “Reagan Democrats” — Democrat voters who left their party during the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper basks in confetti after winning a second minority government on Oct. 14, 2008 in Calgary. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Questions remain as to whether such strategies are even feasible in a world of polarized politics upended by the pandemic.

But former Conservative strategist Tim Powers, who is now chairman of Summa Strategies, told West of Centre that holding the status quo won’t secure O’Toole the win in the current climate.

“O’Toole wants to win. So, he’s got to take what some traditionalists describe as risks,” Powers said. “I know this is one that causes tension — not just in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but also out east — is climate policy.”

Powers said O’Toole would need to find common ground among younger millenial voters and urban voters in Ontario, for whom carbon pricing is a fact of life.

“The other point, though, is that economic policy. I do think conservatives still do find common ground on economic policy from Victoria to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said. “And economic policy doesn’t have to just be carbon pricing.

“So I think O’Toole is looking at that. I think he’s making noises about all of that. And I think that’s only smart, because risk will get you a win. Holding the status quo will not.”

At the wake, at the funeral

Shortly after being sworn in, Joe Biden signed an executive order to revoke a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, effectively killing the $8-billion US project.

Kenney called the move a “gut punch” and urged the federal government to press the U.S. to reconsider, suggesting Canada impose trade and economic sanctions should they not do so.

O’Toole, for his part, said the pipeline cancellation was “devastating” and called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons. Russo saw the Conservative pushback as the party performing due diligence.

“They put up a spirited performance in question period and peppered the government, and then they backed away,” Russo said.

A poll released Tuesday by the Angus Reid Institute indicated that a majority of respondents in B.C., Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada felt it was time to accept the decision on Keystone XL and focus on other issues.

Overall, 59 per cent of Canadians say it’s time to move on from Keystone XL, an opinion driven by poll respondents in the most populous provinces, especially Quebec. (Angus Reid Institute)

The somewhat divergent approaches to the pipeline’s cancellation almost made it seemed as though “Kenney was at the wake, where Erin O’Toole was at the funeral,” Powers said.

“Kenney got into the whisky and had all of the high rhetoric and stories, whereas O’Toole was the more sombre force,” he said.

“O’Toole also doesn’t want to continue to be the force of losing battles, where the public has already decided something, or a decision has been made by an external force.”

Though O’Toole may have accepted defeat on Keystone, Russo said there are other opportunities to  show that he cares about pipelines.

“That’s on TMX and Line 3 and getting those completed,” he said. “But more importantly for Mr. O’Toole, as an Ontario MP, is Line 5 … it provides gasoline for Ontarians, it provides jet fuel for Pearson International Airport.

“He sees a future for the oil industry in Canada in terms of exports and imports, where it’s going to directly affect the consumer.”

In this 2017 file photo, fresh nuts, bolts and fittings are ready to be added to the east leg of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline in Michigan. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News via The Associated Press)

Caouette said she didn’t think fissures would emerge on issues between Kenney and O’Toole in the run-up to the next federal election, but a potential O’Toole victory would actually put the premier in an awkward position.

“The one thing he has right now with respect to drumming up and maintaining support of the public is fighting with Ottawa,” she said.

“All of a sudden, when you have another one of the family in that spot, it becomes a lot more difficult to be as critical.”

Asset or liability?

Kenney’s endorsement of O’Toole was viewed as a major boost given the premier’s significant role in the party, given his outreach role during his time with the Conservative Party, which was largely credited with broadening the party’s base.

But as O’Toole looks ahead to an election — possibly this year — does Kenney factor in to his strategy?

“Kenney helps in terms of keeping the base assured that there is a real conservative in Ottawa, but beyond that I think it’s really up to O’Toole,” Russo said.

“There are avenues of opportunity for him in terms of the pandemic and the economic fallout from the pandemic.”

Jason Kenney was joined by federal Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole during a United Conservative Party virtual annual general meeting in October 2020. (Submitted by United Conservative Party of Alberta)

Powers said O’Toole can’t have Kenney fully offside, especially if Kenney has future ambitions in federal politics.

“But if [Russo] is right that a lot of this election may swing on pandemic management, then Erin O’Toole has to be careful how he aligns with Jason,” he said. “Because there’s a fairly harsh critique around Kenney, as there is around most political leaders around this.”

Caouette said O’Toole should view Kenney as a liability, but that could change.

Kenney is facing so much criticism, Caouette said — whether justified or not — and is facing a fundamentally different set of issues compared to when he entered Alberta politics.

“Frankly, I don’t know that he has the time to dedicate to that, given what he’s facing here in Alberta. I don’t think that the growth for the Conservative Party is an increase in pro-Alberta sentiment across the rest of the country,” she said. 

“I think that that message, whether it’s resonating, is being heard pretty loud and clear. I don’t think that’s where O’Toole is finding his expanded base.”

  • Listen to the complete West of Centre podcast series right here.



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