Politics

John Ivison: ‘Our caucus has its act together,’ says O’Toole

After his ousting of Denise Batters this week, the PC leader says caucus meetings have been ‘really positive’

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Two decades ago, 12 MPs left the Canadian Alliance in protest against the leadership of Stockwell Day, following the 2000 general election when the party had failed to breakthrough in eastern Canada.

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Veteran MP Art Hanger was suspended for criticizing Day and he was followed out the door by a steady stream of MPs — including future Conservative cabinet members Chuck Strahl, Monte Solberg and Jay Hill — to form the Democratic Representative Caucus, or more popularly, “the Rebel Alliance.” Day was eventually forced to call a leadership race, which he lost to Stephen Harper. The rest is history.

I caught up with Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole on Friday and asked whether there is any prospect that history might repeat itself?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “The will of our caucus is clear. One of the differences from that era is that caucus has voted for the Reform Act, which gives caucus leadership over not just the leader but also over who is in our caucus. We used it last year with respect to Derek Sloan. The caucus knows it has the power to set the direction over where we go as a team.”

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Quite how many dissidents there are within the parliamentary group is hard to estimate — certainly there are not enough to pass the 20 per cent of caucus threshold required by the Reform Act to spark a leadership review. But many Conservatives would dispute O’Toole’s contention that caucus set the direction that produced this year’s election platform. A sizeable number felt blindsided by the climate change proposal that put a price on carbon, after years of fighting against the carbon tax.

Yet, O’Toole has attempted to massage bruised egos by shuffling his lineup of critics to bring back supporters of his leadership rival, Peter MacKay. There is a sense that the only beneficiary of continued internecine warfare is Justin Trudeau.

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This week’s expulsion from caucus of Senator Denise Batters came after an outpouring of support for O’Toole from Conservative MPs,  a number of whom pointed out that the distraction of a leadership review is the last thing the party needs as Parliament returns.

I suggested to O’Toole that Trudeau or his successor will be in power in perpetuity unless the Conservative Party gets its act together.

“Our caucus does have its act together,” he said. “The elected caucus supported my decision with respect to Denise Batters. Anyone who is not on the same page when it comes to holding Trudeau to account and having a respectful approach to the pandemic and vaccine hesitancy is not welcome on the team.”

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O’Toole said the two days of caucus meetings this week were “really positive,” ahead of Parliament’s return on Monday.

He acknowledged there is work to do to repair the image of a united Conservative Party. “We do have to show Canadians a much more professional front as a team,” he said. “Everyone needs to be on the same page. And our just-elected MPs are united in that mission.”

We do have to show Canadians a much more professional front as a team

Erin O’Toole

He said his team has plenty of raw material to work with. “We have to get the excessive government spending under control … it is fuelling a looming debt crisis. Higher inflation will lead to interest rate increases, so we don’t want to see (the Liberals) expand the mandate of the Bank of Canada — we need it to focus on keeping inflation down, so that people don’t get costed out of their own lives.”

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Yet, internal discontent is likely to rumble on among those who feel Batters was right that O’Toole has abandoned Conservative principles. She predicted he will never win back the trust of Canadians after appearing to reverse himself on issues ranging from gun rights to carbon taxes during the election.

O’Toole, unsurprisingly, has a different interpretation of past events and a more bullish sense of his prospects at the next election. “We were winning on the economic issues, labour shortages and government overspending mid-campaign. It was only uncertainty with the pandemic returning that Trudeau used to win — and our caucus knows that,” he said.

We are talking about issues that the Canada of 2021 wants the Conservative Party of 2021 to address

Erin O’Toole

He pointed to more representation in Atlantic Canada and rising support in the suburbs of the big cities as evidence that the party is in good shape. “I’m disappointed that we were not able to bring more suburban seats over the line. But we were not playing the politics of division in the same way as Trudeau on the left and (Maxime) Bernier on the right. We tried not to use that at a time when we had to address vaccine hesitancy. But that won’t be there in a few years.”

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I asked O’Toole if the turbulence he is experiencing is the inevitable consequence of trying to move his party to the centre of the political spectrum while still trying to command the loyalty of the orthodox wing?

“People describe me as ‘modernizing’ the party, but it is just wanting to make sure we remain relevant to urban and suburban families raising kids and small businesses. These folks said ‘climate change is important to us. We don’t necessarily agree with Mr. Trudeau’s ever-rising carbon tax but we want to see you take that issue more seriously as a party’ — and we have. It is difficult because it is a bit of a change to previous elections. But it’s to make sure that some Conservative voters who love our economic message don’t exclude us because they feel we are wanting in one or two areas. We are talking about issues that the Canada of 2021 wants the Conservative Party of 2021 to address.”

As pertinent will be what the Conservative Party of 2023 wants. That is when O’Toole is obliged to submit to a leadership review by the party’s membership.

The party has ruled that Batters’ petition demanding a review is invalid, which should buy O’Toole some time until the 2023 convention.

Unless, that is, history repeats itself as farce and unhappy MPs such as Mark Strahl follow the example set by his father 20 years ago to establish a new Rebel Alliance.

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