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‘Some people just can’t leave the campaign behind’: O’Toole rips libertarian website run by Bernier supporters

By Peter Mazereeuw      

A handful of other Tory MPs either endorsed or shrugged off the new third-party group, Conservative Futures.

Conservative MP Erin O'Toole, who finished third in the party leadership race behind Maxime Bernier and winner Andrew Scheer, questioned the motive behind the establishment of a new group that aims to promote libertarian ideas, and is run by a former staffer for Mr. Bernier's campaign. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Conservative MP and former leadership candidate Erin O’Toole has harsh words for a new pro-libertarian organization started by a former aide to Maxime Bernier, calling it a continuation of Mr. Bernier’s campaign for the Conservative Party leadership even after that race wrapped with a victory for Andrew Scheer in May.

“All campaigns need to step away for a while, including that one,” said Mr. O’Toole, who came in third in the contest, just behind Mr. Bernier.

The Conservative Party itself, and a handful of other Tory MPs, either endorsed or shrugged off the new third-party group, Conservative Futures, as another avenue to spread conservative ideas.

The group could also help conservatives fight back against influence from third-party groups supporting left-leaning parties, said Conservative MP Alex Nuttall (Barrie-Springwater-Oro Medonte, Ont.), who supported Mr. Bernier (Beauce, Que.) in the leadership race and penned a blog post for the recently launched Conservative Futures website.

A coalition of centre-left interests pooled money in 2015 under the banner of Engage Canada to run third-party attack ads on former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper before the writ dropped for that year’s election.

However, Conservative MP Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.) who also ran for the party leadership and came in fourth, said while he supported and ran on many of the policies espoused by Conservative Futures, “There’s going to be questions asked, because it’s all Maxime Bernier’s old campaign team: ‘Is this his campaign team in waiting?’” for a future leadership race, he said.

“I think they’re going to have to address that question, and reassure Andrew Scheer and his people that they’re not seeking to undermine his leadership.”

‘I don’t really understand the motive’

Conservative Futures is an attempt to build a movement in Canada for libertarian ideas—smaller government and freer markets—said Brian Storseth, a former Conservative MP and former Team Bernier campaign co-chair, who sits on the board of the new non-profit organization. The website includes campaigns targeting Canada’s gun laws and corporate welfare, for instance. It features opinion pieces by conservative activists.

“What we want to do is push forward these ideas, gather Canadians to support these ideas, and effect change,” he said.

Conservative Futures is being led by executive director Emrys Graefe, who previously worked as Team Bernier’s digital director, and as a senior political adviser to Mr. Nuttall, and before that as a deputy director of political operations for the Conservative Party of Canada. When contacted, Mr. Graefe referred comment to Mr. Storseth.

Former Conservative MP Brian Storseth helped to manage Maxime Bernier’s leadership campaign, and is now on the board of Conservative Futures. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. Storseth declined to name other members of the board without their permission, but said it was a group of “like-minded young conservatives.”

Conservative Futures is using its website and Facebook page to raise money, recruit followers, host events, facilitate members-only discussions, and more. The group is about ideas, not political parties, said Mr. Storseth; the webpage lists policy proposals such as privatizing the CBC, scrapping the supply management system for agriculture, and opposing the Paris climate agreement, and promoting free speech and same sex marriage, though it also includes campaigns to stop Alberta’s NDP premier, Rachel Notley, and Ontario’s Liberal premier, Kathleen Wynne.

“It is ridiculous, really,” said Mr. O’Toole, adding those sorts of discussions already happen within the Conservative Party that Mr. Scheer was just selected to lead.

“I put out a lot of podcasts and blogs and stuff, and I do it just as a Conservative MP. I don’t need to belong to some special group. So I don’t really understand the motive for it,” he said. “Perhaps some people just can’t leave the campaign behind, but that’s not the case with us.”

Mr. Bernier, who also authored an article for the Conservative Futures blog, told The Hill Times he has no role with the organization, and that it was not his idea. He said he may write more blog entries for the site.

“I’m very pleased that people decide to promote Conservative ideas, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said.

When asked to explain why members of Team Bernier decided to found or support Conservative Futures, Mr. Storseth said, “there is no Bernier team campaign anymore,” and said the connection was based upon shared ideals. Mr. Bernier campaigned for the Conservative Party leadership on a libertarian-leaning platform, with promises to scrap supply management for agriculture and the group that controls maple syrup production in Quebec.

Tension between the Bernier and O’Toole leadership campaigns spilled onto the pages of The National Post in mid-May, after members of Mr. Bernier’s campaign team “liked” a short video that showed someone setting flame to Mr. O’Toole’s brochure, the cover of which featured a photo of Mr. O’Toole with his wife and children, on a webpage devoted to Bernier-related memes. A spokesperson for the Bernier campaign denied any link to the webpage.

The Scheer and Bernier teams also sparred over the ability of the other to cost some of the policies they had proposed. Mr. Scheer bested Mr. Bernier in the leadership race by less than two percentage points.

‘Inappropriate’ to clear idea with Scheer

A handful of Conservative MPs reached by The Hill Times said they didn’t take issue with the establishment of Conservative Futures outside of the Conservative Party.

“Our party is a big-tent party, and includes everyone from fiscal conservatives to red Tories to social conservatives to libertarians. Any conservative-minded person who wants to go out to start some kind of conservative organization to push a few issues that they think are important, I say, ‘more power to them,’” said Michael Cooper (St. Albert-Edmonton, Alta.), who backed Mr. O’Toole in the leadership race.    

Conservative Party of Canada spokesperson Cory Hann responded to questions from The Hill Times with a similar message, writing, “It’s always positive when Canadians want to get more involved in politics, and especially when they look to help grow our Conservative movement across Canada.”

Mr. Storseth said the Conservative Futures has not reached out to Mr. Scheer as Mr. Trost suggested, and will not do so, given its existence outside of the party.

“I think that would be inappropriate, and I think Mr. Scheer’s team would find it inappropriate, to have interactions between third-party organizations and the Conservative Party of Canada. That’s never crossed our mind,” he said.

Conservative Futures is just the sort of thing the conservative movement in Canada needs if its parties are going to compete with rivals on the left, which have support from like-minded organizations like Canada 2020 and labour unions, said Mr. Nuttall.

Third-party organizations spent more than $6-million during the election period in 2015, and labour groups dominated the list of top spenders.

“We got our clocks cleaned by third parties in the last election,” he said. “If the Conservative Party is not organized and not ready, then the same thing will happen again.”

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

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