I wanted to use the phrase, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me;” but for Ontario social conservatives, this is the third time. Erin O’Toole is now the third conservative politician from Ontario who recently courted the support of social conservatives only to throw their champion out of the party a few months after winning a leadership election. Why does this keep happening?
Conservatives say they elect leaders in accordance with a “one member, one vote” principle; but most centre-right parties in Canada do not. The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) and the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party use a ranked ballot and an electoral college style point system. With each constituency entitled to the same number of points, this system allows a dozen dairy farmers with one-year memberships in Quebec to be worth the same number of points as hundreds of life-long social conservatives in a rural Ontario constituency or the thousands of members in Calgary Centre.
Politicians are people, and people respond to incentives. The path to victory for a challenger in a conservative leadership vote lies in securing the runner-up position early by being an undefined “True Blue Conservative” and then vigorously courting social conservatives for down ballot support.
With 13 candidates in the 2017 leadership race, Scheer positioned himself as everyone’s second choice; but it was the social conservatives who voted for the hard-right social conservative Brad Trost and the more moderate social conservative Pierre Lemieux that gave him his narrow 51 to 49 per cent win over Max Bernier. Unfortunately, the hard-right support that is key to winning the CPC leadership can also be a “stinking albatross” in competitive swing ridings during a general election. This encourages CPC leaders to dispose of political liabilities. Less than a year after the leadership vote, Brad Trost lost his CPC nomination in what his supporters have described as a Scheer ordered hit job.
In the 2018 Ontario PC Leadership, Doug Ford courted the down ballot support of social conservative Tanya Allen. Doug Ford narrowly won the most points – while losing the popular vote – thanks to the down ballot support of rural social conservatives.
Allen ran for the leadership in opposition to Liberal changes to the public-school curriculum, and Ford signaled his support arguing that the “sex-ed curriculum should be about facts, not teaching Liberal ideology.” Within two months of the leadership vote, Ford revoked Allen’s elected nomination because of her social conservative views on sex education.
During the 2020 leadership race, Sloan implied that being gay was a choice. Many Conservative MPs were outraged and demanded that Sloan be expelled from caucus. O’Toole defended Sloan in caucus, and made it known to Sloan supporters that they were welcome in O’Toole’s “True Blue” tent. Less than a year later, Sloan has been kicked to the curb.
Trost, Allen, and Sloan all had the support of the Campaign Life Coalition, a social conservative group that campaigns against abortion and what they see as liberal ideology in sex education curriculums. As reported in the Western Standard, the president of Campaign Life has demanded O’Toole’s resignation and confirmed reports that Campaign Life has organized delegates to attend the CPC’s virtual March convention. As only delegates can vote for National Council leadership positions, it was reported that O’Toole dumped Sloan as part of a plan to stop Campaign Life from taking control of National Council and passing anti-abortion policies.
In the 2017 Conservative leadership race, the social conservatives were the king makers, but they did not have the numbers to elect one of their own. Social conservatives also represented a minority of delegates at the 2018 party convention in Halifax. In the 2020 leadership race, social conservatives won the popular vote in the second round. After Sloan’s down ballot support was redistributed, moderate social conservative Dr. Leslyn Lewis had 35 per cent of – and was winning – the popular vote but she placed third in the points and was eliminated because her support was concentrated in the West.
Social conservatives are demanding greater influence over the CPC. A conflict between the two camps at the March convention seems certain. O’Toole – potentially shocked into action by the events in Washington – has fired the first shot and triggered a battle for control of the big blue tent.
Alex McColl is the National Defence Columnist with the Western Standard and a Canadian military analyst
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