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O’Toole warns of ‘performance politics,’ social media perils in final Commons address

‘Too many of us are often chasing algorithms down a sinkhole of diversion and division’
Conservative MP and former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is given a standing ovation as he delivers his final speech in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday, June 12, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

If members of Parliament do not avoid the dangers of “performance politics” and chasing “likes” on social media, future Canadians will look back on the current moment as the start of the country’s decline, Erin O’Toole warned Monday.

The former Conservative leader and Ontario MP used his last address to the House of Commons to issue a call to colleagues to focus on what he said should be figuring out the country’s national purpose.

Instead of debating that he said, “too many of us are often chasing algorithms down a sinkhole of diversion and division.”

“We are becoming elected officials who judge our self-worth by how many ‘likes’ we get on social media, but now not how many lives we change in the real world.”

“Performance politics is fuelling polarization. Virtue-signalling is replacing discussion and far too often … we’re just using this Chamber to generate clips, not to start national debates.”

O’Toole is retiring from federal politics at the end of the month after first being elected in a byelection in 2012. From there, the lawyer and former Royal Canadian Air Force member served as parliamentary secretary to Ed Fast, then-trade minister in the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

Before the Conservatives lost government in 2015, O’Toole was appointed to serve as minister for veterans affairs at a troubling time for the portfolio, as the country was adjusting to the return of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan.

After the Tories lost power, O’Toole set his sights on leadership of the party, placing third in its 2017 leadership contest to replace Harper. He ultimately won its 2020 race, but was faced with leading it through the height of COVID-19-related lockdowns.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre — whom the party elected after its MPs voted O’Toole out in early 2022 following months of internal strife and losing the 2021 federal election — told the Commons on Monday that O’Toole “remains a statesman in our party” and thanked him for his public service.

That 2021 loss has recently been at the front of many Conservatives’ minds, as O’Toole recently revealed to MPs that he was briefed by the country’s spy agency on how he was a target of Chinese interference during the campaign.

Conservatives first began raising concerns during the race when they saw what they characterized as misinformation being spread about the party. O’Toole has since expressed disappointment with what he says is inaction by the Liberal government, calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to trigger a public inquiry.

He has said he accepts the outcome of of the election.

Since being ousted by his caucus, O’Toole has kept a low profile in Parliament save for some of his writings. In late December 2022, he penned a post saying he wished the coming year would bring with it more civilized political rhetoric, specifically calling out the expletive-laden flags about Trudeau, which became one of the most memorable images of the 2022 “Freedom Convoy.”

It was after the hundreds of vehicles and thousands of protesters decrying Trudeau’s government and COVID-19 restrictions rolled into Ottawa that O’Toole’s caucus removed him as leader. The move came after O’Toole struggled to satisfy the party with his position on vaccine mandates, and was accused of flip-flopping on key Conservative policies from the carbon tax to firearms.

On Monday, O’Toole reflected on the divisiveness of the last federal election and how social media is shaping the country’s politics for the worse, telling MPs, “social media did not build this great country, but it is starting to tear its democracy down.”

He cautioned that if Parliament is not careful there will be a future generation of voters who have not heard a viewpoint different than their own.

“Today, too often, we’re allowing conspiracy theories about the UN or the World Economic Forum go unchallenged,” O’Toole said.

“We’re becoming followers of our followers when we should be leaders.”

READ ALSO: Erin O’Toole voted out as Conservative leader by MPs