Profile: Erin O’Toole, the genial and reassuringly dull Conservative who could soon be Prime Minister of Canada

9 Sep

When the editor of ConHome, swift to discern a new trend, commissioned me to write a profile of Erin O’Toole, I confess I had no idea who he was talking about.

Brexit has prompted a renewed interest in the politics of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, previously seen as countries from which the United Kingdom had diverged.

But of those three countries, Canada has so far attracted the least coverage, and O’Toole’s election on 23rd August as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, so as Leader of the Opposition and perhaps within a few months Prime Minister, was pretty much ignored in the British press.

Even in Canada, the result did not cause wild excitement. For although the Prime Minister since 2015, Justin Trudeau. has led, since last October’s general election, a minority government, which means there is a strong possibility of new elections, perhaps next spring, which the Conservatives might win, O’Toole’s manner is unexciting.

He a calm, genial, avuncular figure, and although, at 47, he is a year younger than Trudeau, he has the decency to look and sound a generation older.

If Canadians want someone who will stand up, in a stalwart but good-humoured way, for old-fashioned good manners against liberal iconoclasm, they will turn to O’Toole.

Here is a passage from his acceptance speech, delivered in the middle of the night after he won the leadership. He refers to his wife, Rebecca, and speaks quite often in French, while apologising for his English accent:

“Je suis né à Montréal et j’ai grandi en Ontario. J’ai appris mon français dans les Forces Armées Canadiennes. Et oui, je parle comme un anglo… mais un anglo qui respecte les francophones et qui est fier du français dans notre pays. Je suis en politique pour me battre pour tous les Canadiens et nos deux langues nationales.

“Like millions of Canadians, Rebecca and I have been juggling a lot of jobs lately. With our kids at home, COVID has made us appreciate teachers more than ever before.

“My mother, who passed away when I was nine, was a teacher. And, throughout my life, I have wished she was here to give me advice.  Right now, I wish she were here to see her child succeed.  But, I know she is here tonight because I can see her in my daughter who shares her name.”

O’Toole’s father worked for General Motors for 30 years, and from 1995 to 2014 was a member of the provincial assembly in Ontario.

This was an example of public service which the son decided to follow. But first he joined the Canadian air force, in which he hoped to serve as a pilot, but instead found himself selected to be navigator on “an old, antiquated helicopter”, rising to the rank of captain.

“You learn more from your setbacks than from your successes,” he said afterwards.

He loves the armed forces, and that indispensable extension of the armed forces, the Merchant Navy. While glancing down O’Toole’s Twitter feed, I came across a message from a few days ago adorned by the Canadian flag and the Union Jack, which said in English and French:

“Let us always remember the courage and determination of our Merchant Navy. We will never forget those we have lost and the service and sacrifice of our brave women and men in uniform.”

I was brought up on such sentiments. How wonderful to find them being expressed in 2020, by the man who might be the next Prime Minister of Canada.

On leaving the air force, he read law, and was soon profitably employed as a lawyer. In 2014, Bev Oda, the first Japanese Canadian MP and Cabinet minister, resigned her seat in Durham, north-west of Toronto, after being found to have made unacceptable expenses claims.

O’Toole’s father still represented Durham at provincial level. The son won the by-election to represent Durham in Ottawa.

He was soon made Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, his predecessor having infuriated the veterans. The new minister, who had taken a close interest in the welfare of veterans and had set up a mental health charity in that field, calmed things down.

In 2917, when he was still ordinary enough to pretend not to be a career politician, O’Toole ran for the Conservative leadership. He came third, but gained respect for declining to hurl personal abuse at his rivals, and was rewarded with the foreign affairs portfolio.

Andrew Scheer, victor of that contest, failed in 2019 to overthrow Trudeau, and was forced to stand down. O’Toole stood again, struck an angrier note than he had before, obtained the endorsement of Jason Kenney, the celebrated Premier of Alberta, and won by positioning himself as a True Blue Conservative who made right-wing noises without, generally speaking, committing himself to anything so inconvenient as right-wing policies.

He has, however, for several years been a firm supporter of CANZUK, the projected alliance between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

And he is in favour of eliminating the budget deficit, increasing child benefit, cutting and simplifying taxes, building the pipelines which are such a divisive issue in Canadian politics, and taking a hard line on China.

Conrad Black, one of the few Canadian pundits of whom readers of ConHome will almost certainly have heard, said in a recent piece for The National Post that O’Toole

“has the minor distinction of being the first holder of his position since John Bracken, who led the Progressive Conservatives in the 1945 general election, that I have never met. But I think his chances of success are quite promising, for several reasons. First, he is a confident man and has a largely self-made career… In addition to self-confidence and tactical skill, O’Toole appears to have an intuition about where the voters are… He is a bit ordinary, but so are most people (and most politicians).”

To get a better idea of O’Toole, and what might be called his dull quick-wittedness, it is worth watching his accomplished performance on Maclean’s 60-second challenge.

And here for purposes of comparison is Trudeau.

Which will the Canadians prefer? One can’t help feeling that Boris Johnson, so keen to cultivate his Australian contacts, may have missed a trick by failing to send his congratulations to O’Toole.