The Liberals are attacking Erin O’Toole as a social conservative. But where does he really stand? – Toronto Star

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole greets some neighbourhood children after making an announcement on affordable housing in Ottawa on Aug. 19, 2021.

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By Stephanie LevitzOttawa Bureau

Thu., Aug. 19, 20214 min. read

OTTAWA — It was one of the federal Conservatives’ own who infamously called socially conservative values a “stinking albatross” around the party’s neck that helped defeat it in the 2019 federal election.

In this campaign, their rivals are trying to keep strangling the Conservatives on that subject, and they’ve wasted little time.

Just a handful of days in, the Liberals are aggressively promoting the idea — via social media, campaign war room notes and even Justin Trudeau himself — that a Conservative government would roll back women’s rights, despite Erin O’Toole’s oft-stated declarations that he’s pro-choice.

“Pro-choice doesn’t mean the freedom of doctors to choose, it means the freedom of women to choose,” Trudeau countered during a campaign stop, as he slammed a Conservative promise to uphold the rights of medical professionals not to perform certain services as matters of conscience.

“Leaders have to be unequivocal on that, and once again, Erin O’Toole is not,” Trudeau charged. “And he’s saying certain things to some people and its opposite to others.”

Trudeau’s dig was pointed — O’Toole won the Conservative leadership last year with the help of social conservatives, whose support he had courted and who voted for him on the final ballot.

To his critics, it means O’Toole is beholden to the right wing of the party, and the Liberals are quick to point to examples, such as broad caucus support for a private member’s bill that would restrict access to abortion.

But wary of a repeat of the 2019 campaign, when then-leader Andrew Scheer was repeatedly questioned about his personal opposition to abortion, this year’s Conservatives have gone on the offence.

That the party released its platform on the first full day of the campaign — in 2019 it didn’t roll one out for weeks — gives it a chance to shape, promote and drive a narrative, rather than let its opponents do that to it, said Ginny Roth, vice-president of the lobbying firm Crestview Strategy.

That tactic allowed them to quickly counter the standard Liberal strategy of alleging at every opportunity that the Conservative leader is leaning hard to the right, Roth said.

“Erin O’Toole has been doing a better job at defensively positioning himself — on social conservative issues, on climate change — and the Conservative party has a narrative that they are driving every day,” she said.

“The flip side is that the Liberals don’t.”

O’Toole has said repeatedly that he considers access to abortion a right and one that he’ll defend. He said it during the party’s leadership race last year and again after. He said it at campaign events in Quebec this week.

And he said it again Thursday, when pressed on whether there was a contradiction between supporting access to abortion and respecting the rights of medical professionals who object to it as a matter of conscience.

“I am pro-choice. I have a pro-choice record, and that’s how I will be,” he said during a campaign stop in Ottawa.

“I think it’s also possible to show respect for our nurses or health-care professionals with respect particularly to the expansion of medical assistance in dying,” he said. “Let’s find an appropriate and a fair balance to make sure those rights are accessed and we can respect conscience provisions as well.”

But although its platform says a Conservative government “will not support any legislation to regulate abortion,” that’s no guarantee the issue wouldn’t come up in the House of Commons.

During the leadership race, O’Toole promised he’d never stop his party’s members of Parliament from bringing forward bills, nor would he force his cabinet to vote against their conscience. That message was directed squarely at supporters of his two socially conservative rivals in the four-person race.

His fourth rival was Peter MacKay, who was from the progressive wing of the party and had used the “albatross” line in the wake of Scheer’s 2019 defeat.

O’Toole slammed MacKay for that comment, and promised the social conservatives that he would always respect them — a commitment that is reflected throughout this campaign’s Conservative platform.

Within the social conservative wing of the party are many supporters who are concerned about persecution of minority communities — Christian, Sikh, Hindu — throughout the world. Hence promises that a Conservative government would allow for the direct sponsorship of refugees who belong to persecuted religious minorities, and would re-establish an Office of Religious Freedom and Conscience to advocate for those rights at home and abroad.

A promise for a national adoption strategy — a policy pushed at the party’s spring convention with the support of the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition — made it into the platform, too.

And O’Toole’s child-care policy, which would reimburse parents for up to 75 per cent of their child-care expenses — is rooted in a demand from social conservatives that everyone deserves assistance with the cost of raising their children, not just those who put them in daycare centres.

Even the Tories’ proposals on housing can be seen as catering to social conservatives, said Roth.

Many people will tell researchers that they aren’t having more children because they can’t afford a larger home, she said. On Thursday, O’Toole rolled out a detailed housing policy designed to address this.

Roth believes the balance O’Toole is striking — being clear about his beliefs and where he stands personally, but putting forward an ideologically broad set of policies — ought to be proof he’s not beholden to any one group or cause.

“He doesn’t have to play any games.”

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