Lawrie McFarlane: Erin O'Toole should learn lessons from Trump

If the Canadian Sleepwalkers Association wants hints about how to hold a convention, they need look no further than last month’s federal Conservative conference.

The latter was billed, loosely, as a policy convention, but that is an untruth, because the Tories offered scant few policies. Actually, they spent a fair bit of time rejecting policies.

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They voted against recognizing that global warming is a reality. Then they opposed medical assistance in dying. They rubbished carbon taxes.

The second-place leadership candidate, Nova Scotia’s Peter MacKay, didn’t even bother to attend. Scintillating it was not.

But the take-away message is that Erin O’Toole doesn’t know politics. Why else would he stand at the conference podium and demand that the party “recognize that climate change is real.”

What was going through his mind? You might as well invite the Taliban to embrace waterboarding.

O’Toole knows perfectly well that skepticism about global warming is an item of faith among many on the right. They see it as a fictionalized gimcrack invented to justify more government intervention in their lives.

No doubt he wants to broaden his party’s base by appealing across the political aisle.

But here’s the problem with that. Just 10 per cent of Canadians say the Conservatives are their second choice. Far more see the Liberals, NDP or Greens as their next best option.

As things stand then, there isn’t much room for the Tories to expand their tent by embracing left-leaning policies. Voters attracted by those notions already have a range of alternatives to choose from.

So what should O’Toole be doing? Forget selling notions more than half your party won’t buy.

Instead, reframe a conservative agenda in ways that awaken latent support. For all his other failings, Donald Trump did exactly that.

He broadened his party’s appeal by bringing to the surface concerns that many voters held, but saw no point in raising, because their politicians weren’t listening.

We’re talking about working-class job loss and poverty. The flight of corporations abroad to lower-income economies. Mountainous red tape. Dysfunctional government.

All of these issues would resound here. ‘Nuff said about the first three. And the fourth? Well, when our federal government finally gets around to presenting a budget, two whole years will have passed. That’s an unconscionable abuse of Parliament.

But Trump didn’t just identify concerns that had gone unheard.

He convinced disgruntled voters that he really meant business, that he wasn’t just another ward-heeling politician who would change his tune once he got elected.

It helped that he was the first non-politician running for the top office since General Eisenhower.

O’Toole can’t quite claim that distinction. Yet before he stumbled into politics, he was a twice-decorated captain who served 12 years in the Canadian Air Force.

I’m not suggesting he mimic John Kerry, who strode on stage at the 2004 U.S. Democratic party convention, threw a salute and barked out: “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty” (he’d fought in Vietnam).

Yet O’Toole has already served his country with distinction. Instead of trying to force left-leaning policies on a right-leaning party, he should be talking about honour and devotion, duty and courage, qualities all too absent in politics today.

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