In his first major speech since winning the party's leadership race last year, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said today the party must appeal to more voters or risk losing more elections.
During a 30-minute address to party delegates assembled for a three-day policy convention, O'Toole said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to enjoy support despite a series of scandals and a muddled response to the COVID-19 pandemic because too many Canadians don't feel they have a home in the Conservative Party.
"We have lost two elections in five and a half years. In that time, we have had four leaders. We must present new ideas, not make the same arguments hoping that maybe this time more Canadians will come around to our position," O'Toole said.
"We are never going to win over Canadians just by relying on Justin Trudeau to continue to disappoint. His scandals, as outrageous as they often are, will never be enough to defeat him," he said.
O'Toole said the party will be relegated to the opposition benches indefinitely if it continues to run up lopsided victories in Western Canada and rural areas while underperforming in the country's big cities.
The Montreal-born, Bowmanville, Ont.-raised O'Toole said Conservatives must embrace policies that will appeal to the suburban voters who have abandoned the party since the 2011 election that gave former prime minister Stephen Harper a majority government.
'We will give Justin Trudeau the fight of his life'
To do so, said O'Toole, Conservatives must shed their image as a party hostile to the environment and the interests of working people while staying true to their foundational principles of smaller government and lower taxes.
"We will give Justin Trudeau the fight of his life. Because there is one thing the Liberals fear more than anything else — a Conservative party with the courage to grow, to be bold and to change. And that's the Conservative Party that many Canadians are waiting for," O'Toole said.
WATCH: Erin O'Toole's complete speech to the Conservative Party of Canada policy convention
O'Toole said the party must do more than shift its policy positions — it must also do whatever it can to welcome Canadians of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and members of the LGBTQ community, into the fold.
"They want to be able to display our lawn signs with pride in the next election and send the clear message that everyone is welcome in our movement," O'Toole said of conservative-minded voters who are sometimes reluctant to publicly identify with the party. "We need to be a party for all of Canada."
O'Toole said that if party members are serious about winning, they must embrace change — even if it goes against party orthodoxy. Over the course of his 16-page speech, O'Toole used the word "change" 12 times in English.
He said Conservatives must make a direct appeal to private sector union workers in particular, because New Democrats "no longer stand up for working Canadians and their families."
'Canada is at a crossroads'
While he's not embracing some of the big-ticket items the Liberals have floated so far, such as a national child care plan and pharmacare, O'Toole said Conservatives must present a viable COVID-19 recovery plan that will boost small businesses grappling with losses after a year of lockdowns. He also vowed to enact a "comprehensive jobs plan" to restore the million jobs lost in this country over the last year.
He said COVID-19 relief programs must be wound down only when it's prudent to do so — and a return to balanced budgets should not be rushed.
"Canada is at a crossroads. The two paths before us could not be more different," O'Toole said.
"One veers off into the unknown, with more risky shutdowns and unfunded, unknown and untested changes that will leave millions more Canadians behind. That is the path of Mr. Trudeau's 'reimagined' economy."
He said the party must push for more funding to fight mental illness, a problem made far worse by a pandemic that has kept many people isolated and alone.
O'Toole said a government led by him would introduce a "mental health action plan" that would transfer more money to the provinces to expand coverage. He also promised to tackle a runaway opioid overdose crisis that, in some parts of country, claimed many more lives last year than the pandemic.
O'Toole also said he doesn't want Conservative candidates to be branded as "climate change deniers" in the next election campaign.
His speech was light on specifics. "To those who were expecting a dramatic moment, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed," O'Toole said. But he promised to present a comprehensive plan to drive down greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the next election.
O'Toole has promised to scrap the carbon tax on consumers but has vowed to pursue a carbon-pricing regime to make big polluters pay for emissions.
'The debate is over'
The carbon pricing proposal was a point of contention in the leadership race; O'Toole's main primary opponent, Peter MacKay, needled him by calling him "Erin Trudeau." But today, O'Toole said the party can't afford to appear passive in the face of the climate threat.
"We cannot ignore the reality of climate change. The debate is over," he said, adding that the Tories must "boldly reclaim the environment as an area where Conservatives are leaders."
He said the risk of failure is too great because more time with Trudeau at the helm will lead to a decline in Canada's fortunes, adding the current prime minister already has a long "laundry list of incompetence."
He said the federal government has botched Canada's COVID-19 response. Canada, the country that invented insulin, is now dependent on vaccine manufacturers abroad for supply, he said. A nation that built a cross-country railway through the Rocky Mountains, O'Toole said, "can't seem to build pipelines anywhere."
A once-proud advocate for human rights around the world, Canada is now led by a man who would "not show up for a vote recognizing the genocide against the Uyghur minority in China," O'Toole said.
"This is what we have become under Justin Trudeau. But this is not who we are. Canada may be lagging in this crisis, but we will lead again," O'Toole said.
'Cold and calculated'
In a taped message to delegates, Fred DeLorey, the national campaign manager, said the party must expand its reach if it wants to topple Trudeau.
"The fact is, I think an election is coming very, very soon," he said. "Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are focused on one thing — finding a way to trigger an election. Every decision they've taken is focused on the next campaign."
He said O'Toole will face a "cold and calculated" political opponent in the form of Trudeau. While "terrible at governing," the Liberals are formidable campaigners, DeLorey said.
He said the party must pivot to appeal to disaffected voters, grow the base "and earn the trust of voters who never voted for us before."