With the election of Erin O’Toole to lead the Conservative party, the albatross around the neck has joined the elephant in the room in the menagerie of unmentionable creatures.

The neck-adorning albatross – and a stinking one at that – was the metaphor notoriously used by Peter MacKay to explain the Conservatives’ failure to win the last federal election. The specific transgression was Andrew Scheer’s inability to convince voters his party would not impose conservative social and religious values on Canadians.

As MacKay put it during a post-election panel discussion most voters didn’t want to talk about  issues like women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage during the election campaign. But these topics were nonetheless “thrust onto the agenda and hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like a stinking albatross…and he wasn’t able to deftly deal with those issues when opportunities arose.”

The dead albatross around the neck comes from the 19th century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Mariner shot the albatross for no reason. When his ship runs into trouble, crew mates say it’s the old sailor’s fault for shooting the bird and so force him to wear the carcass.

Whether the analogy neatly fits the Scheer experience is a question for discussion, along with “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” The albatross – if the Conservative position on certain social issues can be so described – pre-dated Scheer. His sin, it seems, was that he did not shoot down the creature.

In any case, by the time the leadership votes were tallied up early Monday morning, the albatross had miraculously come alive long enough to reposition and provide rancid neckwear for MacKay. The albatross quip, it is generally believed, contributed to the Nova Scotian’s surprising failure in the race to succeed the maladroit Scheer.

Several elements contributed to the final result, including Jason Kenney’s fervent endorsement of O’Toole over his long-time cabinet colleague MacKay, and the successful courting in Quebec of a group of gun rights advocates. But the most important factor was the strong showing of the two avowedly socially conservative candidates. After they were dropped from the ballot their supporters, buoyed by a recruitment campaign by the Campaign Life Coalition and put off by MacKay’s poetic reflections, went overwhelmingly to O’Toole.

But despite the importance of social conservatives to the outcome, the erstwhile albatross had undergone another transformation by the time the new leader met the media last Tuesday morning. It was now the elephant in the room, as O’Toole insisted his personal pro-choice views should be sufficient to put to rest the questions that dogged his predecessor.

“I am a MP with a clear track record for standing up for human rights, whether it’s women, whether it’s the LGBTQ community. I won the leadership of the Conservative Party as a pro-choice Conservative MP, and that’s how I’m going to lead as leader of the opposition and that’s how I will be as prime minister,” O’Toole told reporters.

Whether that response will work to keep the albatross at bay remains to be seen. To their credit, the Conservatives have put the full results of the leadership balloting on line, allowing political junkies to burrow down into the results on a round-by-round and riding-by-riding basis. The effort further reveals the strength of social conservatives in the party.

By the numbers

It was a ranked ballot, with voters able to choose only one candidate, or as they did in most cases, more than one, ranking them one through four. On the first round, the results show that between them the two SoCons received 70,295 votes, 40.4 percent of the total. Leslyn Lewis, a Black Toronto lawyer finished third with 43,017. Ontario MP Derek Sloan, a far-right flamethrower, received 27,278 votes. MacKay led with 52,851 and O’Toole was second with 51,258.

With Sloan off the ballot for the second round, his vote was distributed to the surviving candidates. Eleven per cent of Sloan’s supporters had no second choice, five per cent went to MacKay and 21 per cent to O’Toole. The clear majority, 63 per cent, went to Lewis, putting her in first place in popular vote after the second round.

But ranking is determined not by popular vote but by points, with each riding delivering 100 points regardless of the number of members voting. (For a stab at an explanation, see below.[1]) Incredible as it seems, the system eliminated Lewis, the leading vote-getter, from the final round. That’s mainly because she did poorly in Quebec, picking up only 1,265 points, 1,500 fewer than MacKay and 2,506 behind O’Toole. As the table shows, distribution of the 7,800 points from Quebec’s 78 ridings changed the whole contest.

Round Two Results

Candidate Votes % Points % Points -Que % -Que
O’Toole 56,907 33.2 11,904 35.2    8,132 31.3
MacKay 54,165 31.6 11,756 34.8    8,991 34.6
Lewis 60,316 35.2 10,140 30.0    8,875 34.1


As the last two columns of the table show, when Quebec’s points are removed, OToole runs third after the second round and would be dropped from the ballot. This is of more than passing interest because those Quebec points – 23 per cent of the total – were distributed based on votes by only 7,647 voters – just 4.4 per cent of the national total.

Lewis was in first place in each of the four western provinces after round two, with the support of nearly 40 per cent of the 79,000 western Conservatives who voted. Out West that level of popular support allowed her to pick up 550 points more than O’Toole and 1,175 more than MacKay. But that was not enough to offset the 2,506 vote margin O’Toole held over her in Quebec, a lead built on the O’Toole campaign’s ability to exploit the points system.

As Konrad Yakabuski reported in the Globe and Mail, it was déjà vu the way they did it.

In 2017, Andrew Scheer’s organizers only needed to sign up a few hundred dairy farmers in Quebec to knock off his chief rival Maxime Bernier, who had promised to abolish supply management in the milk sector. This time around, Mr. O’Toole’s camp targeted gun-rights advocates in Quebec to sail past Peter MacKay in the province.

“Thank you to all the gun owners of Quebec who took out membership cards to vote. You were a turning point in this race,” Guy Morin, the head of a group that has fought the introduction of a provincial arms registry said on its Facebook page on Monday.

Thanks to the points system and the Quebec gun owners, Lewis was dropped from the ballot after the second round. About 29 per cent of her 60,316 votes – the SoCon bloc – listed no third or fourth choice so were not counted in the final round. About 15 per cent went to MacKay and the rest – 56 per cent – to O’Toole.

The upshot

Capturing the social conservative vote was crucial to O’Toole’s win, but it was available to him only because his organizers were more successful in gaming the system to maximize returns from Quebec. It’s likely that, having seen their favourite candidate come so close to victory, the SoCons will be calling on O’Toole to keep some of the commitments he made during the campaign. These include allowing Conservative MPs to raise moral issues such as abortion and allow free votes for MPs and cabinet ministers on issues like abortion and assisted dying. His platform also promised legislation to protect medical professionals whose beliefs prevent them from carrying out or referring patients for services that violate their conscience.

Even if Conservative activists decide to ignore the elephant for the time being, we know the Liberals will not. Ever since the Reform Party arrived on the scene 30 years ago, the Liberals have been stoking fear about the Conservative agenda on social issues to frighten wavering centre-left voters into supporting them.

The Liberals didn’t miss a beat last week in drawing attention to the presence in the room, calling on O’Toole to kick out Derek Sloan, whose campaign featured – among other unseemly highlights – a racist attack on Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam’s loyalty. But Sloan is staying put in the Conservative caucus, almost ensuring  continuation of wedge politics as usual – hardly what we need in these times.



[1] Let’s say there are two ridings, riding A in which 100 members vote, and riding B in which 1000 members vote. They each distribute their points in accordance with the vote share for each candidate in the riding. In the 1000 member riding Candidate One receives 500 votes and 50 points. Candidate Two receives 300 votes and 30 points. In the 100-member riding Candidate One gets 30 per cent of the vote and 30 points while Candidate B gets 50 per cent and 50 points. Of the 1100 votes cast in the two ridings, Candidate One received 530, or 48 per cent, while Candidate 2 got 350, or 32 per cent. However, the two candidates received the same number of points, 80. Candidate One picked up 50 from riding A and 30 from riding B. Candidate Two collected 30 from riding A and 50 from riding B. Same number of points, but a wide gap in votes.