Erin O’Toole How Conservatives shift further and further left

Chris Selley: O’Toole just showed Liberals why he’ll be tougher to demonize than his predecessors

Erin O’Toole is fending off a quintessential Liberal grift early in his leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, with two government bills recently reintroduced in Parliament playing the McGuffin: one on conversion therapy (i.e., quackery designed to turn gay people straight), and the other on expanding access to assisted suicide.

“O’Toole must … find a way to fight the Liberals’ allegations — repeated again in the Commons Wednesday — that social conservatives are driving his party’s agenda,” Canadian Press reported this week. The story ran with headlines like “Free votes for Conservative MPs on assisted dying, conversion therapy ban: O’Toole.”

In an alternate universe a few doors down, Trudeau has been taking heat for proroguing those bills to death in the first place, for no good reason anyone could detect in the Liberals’ “more of the same” throne speech. In that alternate universe, he will have been under sustained fire for passing the original assisted-dying legislation back in 2016, over the objections of many experts, advocates and MPs who said it was unconstitutionally strict. The free vote — shocking, no? — saw four Liberals, one of whom is now justice minister, vote against the bill for precisely that reason. Why, prime minister, did you only act when the Quebec Superior Court struck the law down?

In the alternate universe, Trudeau might also have been badgered about his government only belatedly discovering the need for federal legislation on conversion therapy at all. It insisted as recently as last year that it was a matter for the provinces to deal with. (It really isn’t. This isn’t a service offered by licensed practitioners.) How many people suffered because of your delay, prime minister?

Alas, we’re stuck in this universe. And we are again witnessing the genius of the federal Liberals and their relationship with much of the media: Literally the split second they change their minds and adopt a nominally progressive stance on an issue — even if the courts have to force them to, even if New Democrats have been there for 10 years — it becomes the Conservatives’ obligation to explain their shameful, paleolithic dissent.

The basic promise of an O’Toole leadership has always been that he could cope better in this political/media universe than Andrew Scheer or Stephen Harper. A large part of it is simply temperament: He’s just far more at ease with himself and his party — from true blue to beet red — than either of his predecessors. Leaders who are afraid of their party’s shadow, or even their own, will struggle — have struggled — to grow their base.

It also helps that it’s impossible to credibly call him a social conservative. He will still widely be portrayed as in thrall to his so-con supporters, though what revenge they might exact for his treachery is never explained. But reality does still matter in Canadian politics, at least at the margins.

On the limited evidence thus far, O’Toole is fulfilling that promise.

To be fair, assisted dying is not an issue he needs to fear, as it’s not one Liberals can much exploit. Reasonable people understand that reasonable people disagree about where to draw the line. There are advocates for the elderly and disabled who demand more access, and advocates for the elderly disabled who worry about abuse. We have already heard harrowing, credible stories of people being offered assisted dying as if it were just another treatment option. Judges concern themselves with rights, but this is a right that’s wide open to abuse in societies that don’t assiduously protect the elderly and infirm. As we have seen in recent months, Canada’s two largest provinces are just such societies.

Opposing the conversion therapy bill as written is a trickier proposition, though, because its aims are fairly unimpeachable. “During the leadership race, (candidates Derek) Sloan and (Leslyn) Lewis … alleged (the conversion therapy bill) would criminalize mere conversations between parents and children,” CP reported. “The Liberals say the bill does no such thing. But even O’Toole has picked up on that thread, making the same allegation in his response to the bill last week.”

That sounds nutty, as much of what Sloan says is. But it happens to be true. The bill defines conversion therapy as “a practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.”

A practice designed to reduce sexual behaviour, eh? Last I checked, it’s not unconscionable to disapprove of your children having sex. (The bill also essentially outlaws various churches’ teachings on homosexuality, not least the prime minister’s, but I’ll leave it to them to bash that out.)

I can hear people scoffing: “Oh, as if a prosecutor would ever file charges for that.” It might be easier for O’Toole to keep his powder dry. But he’s insisting on getting it right, as he should. “Conversion therapy should be banned to protect young people who identify as LGBTQ+,” he said in the House last week. “Let us do this in the right way and make sure their support networks are not jeopardized in the process. We will be seeking reasonable amendments to try to get to yes on this.”

The O’Toole who made that speech will be far more difficult to demonize than his two predecessors.

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