(Bloomberg) -- Justin Trudeau, who’s run Canada with movie-star charisma for six years, expected to trample Conservative challenger, dismissed by many as dull and obscure, in a snap election.
Instead, Erin O’Toole has turned his plodding Boy-Scout style into a stinging weapon against sex appeal, giving him a shot at victory in Monday’s vote.
“Every Canadian has met a Justin Trudeau in their lives -- privileged, entitled and always looking out for number one,” O’Toole said this week near Ottawa, summing up his campaign message. “He was looking out for number one when he called this expensive and unnecessary election in the middle of a pandemic. That’s not leadership, that’s self-interest. And it’s Justin Trudeau through and through.”
The prime minister, who began last month with a six-point lead, is now in a statistical dead heat with O’Toole. Trudeau’s Liberals have about 32% support compared to 30% for the Conservatives, according to the latest Nanos Research Group survey, with the left-leaning New Democratic Party in third at 21%.
While Trudeau believed his successful handling of the Covid-19 pandemic would propel him to a parliamentary majority, his opponents have labeled the election an act of vanity in a time of national crisis. The charge appears to be sticking.
The contrast between Trudeau and O’Toole can feel at times almost visceral. The Conservative, a lawyer and former air force captain, is, at 48, a year younger than the prime minister. But his thinning white hair, middle-class origins and military bearing give him the air of the dad in the room compared with Trudeau’s looser boy-band vibe.
Equally important is the shift O’Toole has undertaken inside his party in his first year of leadership, moving it fairly close to the Liberals. In essence, he is offering moderate policies without Trudeau’s flair for the dramatic. If successful, he’d be the nation’s first progressive Conservative prime minister in almost three decades.
“He is a moderate center politician who is more in line with Boris Johnson than he ever would be with Donald Trump,” Tim Powers, a Conservative strategist and vice-chairman at Summa Strategies in Ottawa, said by phone.
This is a far cry from the harder-edged western conservatism of Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister from 2006 until 2015, which favored balanced budgets and the championing of Canada’s oil and gas sector.
The shift has created an opening for the far-right People’s Party of Canada to siphon off votes but has lured some in the center who appear to be losing patience with Trudeau.
O’Toole is pushing back against Trudeau’s narrative of a Conservative Party that would curtail women’s and gay rights, cut social spending and ruin the environment. His predecessors -- Harper and Andrew Scheer -- lost to Trudeau in 2015 and 2019.
While promising fiscal prudence, O’Toole plans to introduce C$51 billion ($40 billion) in new government spending over the next five years, compared to Trudeau’s proposals for C$78 billion over the same period.
The Conservative leader’s plan to reduce the budget deficit -- which was around C$314 billion last year -- rests on increased tax revenue from economic growth. To spur on that growth, businesses would receive a hiring subsidy and tax credits.
“Because of the times we’re living in, it would’ve been tone deaf to turn off the taps,” said Yaroslav Baran, another Conservative strategist and managing principal for Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa. “A platform of an austere and balanced budget in two years would have gone nowhere.”
O’Toole has also been reaching out to labor unions. His father was a member of Ontario’s provincial legislature for two decades but he likes to note that he also once worked for General Motors Co.
The suburbs around Canada’s biggest city -- known by their area code, 905 -- are the main electoral battleground. It’s also O’Toole home turf. Although he was born in Montreal, O’Toole grew up near Toronto and has served as the member of parliament for Durham since 2012.
He’s attracting urban voters with a Greater Toronto Area plan to make housing more affordable, build more public transit and hire more police officers. His housing strategy includes a two-year ban on foreign home buyers and a promise to build 1 million homes in three years.
“We need someone in Ottawa who personally knows and understands the challenges facing the families and communities in our region,” O’Toole said in an emailed statement. “It’s time Canada had a prime minister from the 905.”
On climate change, O’Toole would scrap Trudeau’s carbon tax in favor of a loyalty card for consumers to spend carbon credit on environmentally-friendly purchases. He’d also change Canada’s targets for emissions reductions, promising a 30% cut from 2005 levels by 2030. That’s less ambitious than the 45% target set by Trudeau’s government.
O’Toole’s approach to oil pipelines is more Conservative mainstream. He’d build new pipelines and make oil exports an important part of foreign policy.
But in a combative televised debate with Trudeau and other party leaders last week, he also conceded his party has baggage to unload. “We have to win back trust on this issue -- we haven’t met the expectations of Canadians on climate change,” O’Toole said.
Conservative strategists say O’Toole’s real strength is the unfeigned authenticity he exudes in moments like that.
“The one big positive thing about Erin O’Toole is what you see is what you get, privately and publicly,” said Ashton Arsenault, vice president at Crestview Strategy in Ottawa. “There’s no difference between the two and I don’t think you can say that about everybody in the political universe.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.