The Salt Spring Forum continued its tradition of hosting high-level Canadian politicians with a visit from former Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leader Erin O’Toole last Tuesday.
O’Toole was frank with his ArtSpring audience in describing his disdain for social media and his related concern for democracy, and also in providing a behind-the-scenes look at life in federal politics.
As CPC leader, O’Toole led his party to a higher popular vote (34 per cent) than the Liberal party (at 33 per cent) in the Sept. 20, 2021 election, but the Conservatives again ended up as the official opposition with 119 seats to the Liberals’ 160. Less than five months later a majority of his caucus voted to oust him as leader.
Forum guest moderator John-Michael McColl opened discussion by talking about O’Toole’s farewell address in the House of Commons on June 12, 2023, which created headline news.
O’Toole took the crowd back to that day, saying he tried in the speech to reflect on what an honour it was to serve his Durham, Ont. riding for more than 10 years and participate “in one of the world’s great parliamentary democracies.” Then he shared his concerns about the decline in parliamentary debate and how MPs had become overly influenced by social media.
“One of the lines I used in that speech was that increasingly ‘we are becoming followers of our followers [when we should be leaders],” said O’Toole.
“The measuring stick for some politicians today, and we’re seeing this in the speaker election circus in the United States, is they are now judging their self worth as a politician based on how many Twitter followers they have, or how many shares their video gets. That didn’t exist when I was first elected.”
Politicians are mistakenly gauging the amount of support they or their ideas have based only on what they hear in their social media bubble, he said.
“I had MPs that were upset that I wasn’t going to endorse the freedom trucker convoy because they were convinced everyone in Canada supported the convoy, because everyone on their Facebook page supported the convoy.”
O’Toole stressed to his MPs that an elected official’s job is to represent all constituents, and not just those who vocally support them.
“Your job as a woman or man sent to Ottawa is to represent that community and to represent everybody. And you have to be extra careful not to be dragged in to the social media bubble, where you don’t even realize what a small sliver of your community that you’re hearing from.”
O’Toole recounted how he believes his party could have won the 2021 election except that at the last minute the Liberal party exploited the fact that some of his MPs held anti-vaccine views.
“Our polling showed that as the country got vaccinated, the vaccinated people didn’t understand why the unvaccinated people weren’t vaccinated, and that’s a very powerful tool to turn 80 per cent of the country against 20 per cent. And that’s what the prime minister did.”
He also feels interference from the Chinese government was a factor in between seven and 10 ridings because of Conservative party positions viewed as anti-China.
“Not only did they not want the Conservatives, they didn’t want me to win, certainly, because it would have been a radical change with respect to Canada’s policy on China.”
While O’Toole was largely partisan in his answers to audience members’ questions, he said he felt certain areas of public policy, including climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and Arctic sovereignty, should not be addressed on a partisan basis.
The evening was also notable in that moderator McColl was the forum’s first coordinator as a young man when it started hosting guest speakers in 2011. McColl now works in Premier David Eby’s office.