Erin O’Toole: Don’t laugh, populism can win

The Conservative leader’s newfound concern for the working class isn’t sincere, but it could work
Photo: Erin O'Toole
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Erin O’Toole has staked his political future on the promise of economic salvation for the working class. With the prospect of an election looming, Liberal and NDP partisans are laughing at his strategy — but they shouldn’t be. The only thing that matters in political campaigning is victory, and make no mistake, what O’Toole is selling is a winning strategy.

The divide in the economic prosperity of Canadians has never been more visible. Millions of Canadian workers lost their jobs when COVID-19 struck, affecting communities of every race, creed, and motto, except for one — the wealthy. In 2020, 45 Canadian billionaires saw their wealth increase by a whopping collective $53 billion. The single trait that workers who lost work last year shared was that they earned less than $27.81 an hour, according to Statistics Canada. That’s $57,844 a year or less. A pre-pandemic survey showed that more than half of households survive paycheque to paycheque and one in four don’t have the money to make ends meet each month. This dire situation has certainly been compounded by COVID-19, with unemployment now at 9.4 per cent and the lowest earners taking the biggest hit.

With wide margins of Canadians feeling that the economy is rigged for the rich and that political parties don’t care about them, the stage is set for populism to win the day.

I spent the better part of my adulthood crisscrossing the U.S., running campaigns for progressives and watching coal miners and auto workers, the long-time base of the Democratic Party, abandon the party after it abandoned them. In Donald Trump, they found a new hope. He spoke to the yearnings of those left facing the same financial stresses millions of working-class Canadians face today. You don’t trust Washington? Neither did he. You think that the Democrats don’t care about hard-working Americans? It’s because they don’t. You want the return of good American jobs? He promised to bring them back and so much more. Hillary Clinton might as well have been campaigning in Greek. Working Americans simply were not listening to what she had to say. After all of the unfulfilled promises thrown at them by Democratic politicians, it is hard to blame them for looking for something new.

As a relative newcomer to Canada, the national mood feels like political Freaky Friday. Justin Trudeau has broken myriad promises on policies that would have helped Canadians lighten their economic burden, like universal pharmacare and childcare, in favour of handouts to multi-billion-dollar conglomerates and nearly a trillion dollars in support to Bay Street banks. That might not be an issue for the urban elite in Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver, but for working-class Canadians, “real change” has turned out to be a real letdown. With wide margins of Canadians feeling that the economy is rigged for the rich and that political parties don’t care about them, the stage is set for populism to win the day.

Enter Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives. Having witnessed the power of right-wing populism to our south, they are salivating to try their hand at the playbook. With the storm clouds of an election on the horizon, that chance might come this year. They are busy honing their message and deploying surrogates to make the case that they alone can set things right for the economically disenfranchised. If they are to be believed, they will do it all while serving as a big tent that’s welcoming for every Canadian, and without the smugness of the Liberals and Justin Trudeau or the “cancel culture” of the left. But crucially for their prospects at the ballot box, they have learned from the demise of the Trump presidency and plan to forgo explicit racism and antagonism.

This brand of conservative populism may be a thin veneer concealing the standard fare of pro-business policy at the heart of the Conservative Party, but we don’t have to look much further than Ontario to see just how effective it can be domestically. For people who are struggling economically, the promise of 10 cents off a litre of gas is a lot more tangible than building a green economy.

To stop O’Toole’s brand of populism in its tracks, the Liberals and NDP must embrace bold policy and provide a transformational vision for those that Conservatives seek to appeal to, the working class. For Jagmeet Singh and the NDP, policies like free tuition and a Green New Deal that emphasizes creating high-paid jobs are two essential building blocks of a left populism able to head off O’Toole’s appeals to the working class. They would be wise to get to work speaking to Main Street’s concerns sooner rather than later. If they don’t, Erin O’Toole may just wipe the smirks from their faces for them.

Joe Roberts is a veteran political strategist in both the U.S. and Canada, Executive Director of the Centre for Canadian Progress, Co-host of the political podcast New Left Radio, and Managing Director at Jewish Currents Magazine.
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