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O’Toole handled his first election pitfall quickly and effectively

Erin O'Toole
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Most political parties face a few potential pitfalls during an election campaign. It seems rather obvious on the surface, right?

Yet it’s astonishing how many parties and leaders are completely unprepared for what the march of history has repeatedly warned them to watch, learn and avoid.

This year’s federal election has already witnessed a few missteps.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have experienced the bulk of them. Manipulated media warnings. Policies about mandatory vaccines that have turned off businesses and unions. Defending a controversial candidate facing serious allegations. Using old, tired strategies against the Conservatives that have completely backfired.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s “Punjabi poutine” truck breaking down before his press conference was a small mishap, although the publicity stunt was a success. A much bigger pitfall happened during Singh’s appearance in Churchill, Man. with local NDP candidates when he publicly witnessed two First Nations leaders announce their endorsement of a Liberal candidate. It wasn’t his fault, of course, but it has to sting.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul’s bizarre endorsement of the Liberal climate change plan was a pitfall of her own making. It may have been done for strategic reasons, but it looks bad when an environmental party supports another party’s environmental policy.

As for Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives, their campaign had been almost error-free – other than the strange and short-lived Willy Wonka ad, that is.

Alas, that streak came to a brief halt during a controversy involving guns.

O’Toole supports the rights of law-abiding gun owners. He believes gun ownership is a matter of individual freedom and liberty. He’s opposed to the Liberals’ position on gun control and believes their record with respect to gun violence has been terrible.

The Conservative crime strategy was released on Sept. 3. It unveiled a section with a tough-on-crime policy against gang members carrying guns. O’Toole also confirmed his comment in the previous night’s French-language debate that a Tory government would “maintain the ban on assault weapons” that has been in place since 1977.

Most Conservatives, and quite a few Canadians, would view O’Toole’s position on guns and cracking down on crime in a positive light. Even those who oppose his policies would simply see them as something to reject rather than malign.

Here’s where the issue started.

O’Toole wouldn’t remove the assault weapon ban but the Tory platform appeared to indicate a different strategy would be taken with the Liberal ban of 1,500 “assault-style weapons” imposed last year. This includes rifles like the AR-15 and Ruger Mini-14 – the latter of which was involved in the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre and always raises eyebrows whenever it’s mentioned.

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While O’Toole correctly attacked the Liberal PM’s ineffective policy on gun control, he made a mistake by creating a two-pronged message on certain guns. This opened the door for the Liberals to claim that O’Toole was going to repeal Trudeau’s May 2020 order in council on assault-style weapons.

This was a major pitfall that could have derailed part or all of the Tory campaign. If O’Toole went back to his first position, defended current laws, attacked illegal weapons and supported tough-on-crime legislation, the bleeding could be contained. It had to be done fast and effectively, however.

That’s exactly what happened.

O’Toole spoke to the media on Sept. 5. He confirmed the May 2020 order in council would remain in place until the completion of a public review of the firearm classification system.

“It’s critically important for me to say to Canadians today that we are going to maintain the ban on assault weapons; we’re going to maintain the restrictions that were put in place in 2020,” he said. “We should have a public discussion of difficult issues related to public safety and it should not be politicized.”

This was a clear, concise response. The difference between assault and assault-style weapons was no longer a point of contention. The ban would remain in place in both instances under a Conservative government. O’Toole and his team pivoted back to the ineffective Liberal plan against gun violence and moved forward.

Yes, there will be critics and skeptics of O’Toole when it comes to guns until the federal election is over. Then again, they would have existed even if this short-lived controversy had never materialized.

By the Conservatives moving quickly and defining the party position forcefully, any fears of a short-term or long-term negative effect have been pretty well eliminated.

Problem solved and pitfall avoided. Well done.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. For interview requests, click here.


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