Erin O’Toole should put his leadership to the test – Toronto Star

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There’s a witch hunt feeling to it, MPs looking at each other wondering if they too are among the silent dissenters in Erin O’Toole’s Conservative caucus. There are few people to confide in, to commiserate with, to express how one truly feels about the leader’s direction and performance. A chill has overtaken caucus, and, for many, a sense of resignation.
That is, of course, precisely what O’Toole wants after he was faced this week with the strongest challenge yet to his tenuous leadership. He not only booted a well-regarded senator from caucus but he told MPs — via the media — that he had enough votes secured to ensure anyone else thinking of breaking rank would see a similar fate. It was a warning shot.
On Monday, Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters posted a video on social media announcing the launch of a petition calling for a referendum for members to review O’Toole’s leadership. Batters criticized O’Toole for taking the party into a “new direction,” one “nearly indistinguishable from Trudeau’s Liberals.”
“As leader, Mr. O’Toole has watered down and even entirely reversed our policy positions without the input of party or caucus members. On carbon tax, on guns, on conscience rights,” she said, “he flip-flopped on our policies within the same week, the same day, and even within the same sentence.”
O’Toole had lost the election “by every measure,” Batters said. He lost half a million votes, won fewer seats, and oversaw losses in diverse suburban ridings in Vancouver and Toronto. He was seen as untrustworthy, she added. “You can’t come back from that.”
Tuesday night, on the eve of two days of national caucus meetings, O’Toole announced he’d thrown Batters out of the caucus. (The Senate’s Conservative caucus, however, decided she was still welcome.)
Batters is far from a pariah in the party. A long-time member, she met her late husband — MP Dave Batters — 32 years ago while crossing the street at a Progressive Conservative convention in Saskatoon. After his death, she became a mental health advocate, and in 2013 was appointed to the upper chamber by Stephen Harper.
Her eviction from caucus was allowed under Reform Act rules the Conservatives decided to adopt because Batters is a senator.
Kicking an MP out, however, requires a majority vote from caucus. On Tuesday, O’Toole’s team told the CBC that it had lined up 24 MPs who were ready to trigger the process to expel any colleague supporting Batters’s petition, and at least 70 willing to vote in favour.
Meanwhile, party president Rob Batherson tried to argue that the petition didn’t abide by the Conservatives’ constitution. While it’s true the constitution doesn’t explicitly say a referendum can be held to review the leader’s tenure, it does not forbid it. Still, the power to rule anything in or out of order rests with the party’s national council.
That council has already cracked down on another dissenter. Ontario councillor Bert Chen, who was elected by his peers, attempted to bring forward a similar petition in September. Three weeks later, he was suspended, because of a complaint, Batherson said. As part of its investigation, party lawyer Arthur Hamilton sent a letter to Chen demanding detailed records of his phone, email and text messages with any “party member, party activist, interest group or interested person” regarding his petition. Hamilton’s letter also requested the names of any group Chen consulted and a complete record of each communication he had with the media.
O’Toole shrugged off the question when he was asked about this overreach, calling it a party matter. “I’m not involved in the decisions,” he said.
He’s lucky the grassroots leadership review he must face is nearly two years away. The party’s next convention is scheduled for August 2023 in Quebec City, far from the epicentre of the anger against O’Toole, and where many are thankful for his new positions promoting a carbon price and a pro-choice stance.
While Batters and the more than 4,500 members who have signed her petition press on, can O’Toole’s authoritarian streak really save his leadership?
His heavy-handed approach certainly shows he’s geared up to fight. But if the Conservative leader wants to move on from the topic and portray himself and his team as a government-in-waiting, why not test his leadership within caucus, settle the issue for now, and buy himself more time to court party members?
No one I’ve spoken to in caucus believes he’d lose a secret ballot leadership vote. Even MPs who don’t like him wonder who would replace him. Pierre Poilievre?
The more O’Toole plays hardball, threatening MPs who don’t follow his script, the more he alienates their supporters, and Canadians who wonder if this is the type of prime minister they want.
Even Justin Trudeau took months before showing vocal dissenters Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott the door, and that was after a lengthy caucus meeting where consensus was clear.
O’Toole should put his leadership to the test. Unless, of course, he thinks he’d lose.

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