Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole surprised the Canadian public on the weekend by amending the gun-control section of the election platform his party had published Aug. 16. Canadians are used to parties backing away from their election promises once the election is over. It’s unusual, however, to see a party discard its principles in mid-campaign, just three weeks after announcing them.
Flip-flops of this kind invite mockery if they are not well prepared and well explained. A willingness to admit error and accept advice is, however, not necessarily a bad thing. As the opinionated English poet William Blake warned long ago, "The man who never alters his opinions is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind."
The problem with Mr. O’Toole’s flexibility is that it seems crassly tactical. His gun-rights supporters in western and northern Canada will never vote Liberal or NDP. He has no need to pander to them.
Quebec, however, is another kettle of fish. Ever since the 1989 mass murder at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec opinion has favoured tight restrictions on gun ownership. Mr. O’Toole’s party holds just 10 of Quebec’s 78 House of Commons seats. He badly needs more Quebec seats to strengthen his position and threaten Liberal dominance. He won’t get them by defending gun-owner rights.
In this context, Mr. O’Toole announced on Sunday that he was backing away from the promise to repeal the Liberal government’s assault-weapons ban enacted in 2020. "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.
The party program still says the Conservatives will repeal the Liberals’ Bill C-71 (the 2019 firearms legislation) and a related order-in-council banning specific weapons. A footnote was added to the Conservative election platform yesterday to say that all firearms that are currently banned will remain banned.
The party’s formal position, therefore, is that the Conservatives will repeal the ban on 1,500 named makes and models of weapons, but those weapons will remain banned. One is left with the distinct impression that Mr. O’Toole’s approach to the issue involves speaking in what seems to be clear language but providing almost nothing in the way of actual clarity.
In terms of black-and-white declarations of intention, it’s black, if that’s what you want to hear. But if you want to hear it’s white, then it’s also white.
It might be easier to follow the evolution of Mr. O’Toole’s thought on this point if he had done some thinking out loud about the merits of one policy or another. It might be easier to see what his party will do if we had seen him discussing the matter openly with the gun-rights enthusiasts in his party and bringing them along with him.
In the absence of any discernible thought beyond electoral arithmetic, however, there is no way of knowing what a Tory government would do about assault weapons once the election is over. Nor is there any reason for thinking the party agrees with its leader on this point.