Conservative Party's national council trying to silence members challenging O'Toole's leadership: ex-member

·5 min read
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole removes his mask as he steps up to the podium at a news conference on Parliament Hill. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole removes his mask as he steps up to the podium at a news conference on Parliament Hill. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)

A former member of the Conservative Party of Canada's national council is accusing the body of an "indefensible attempt" to silence thousands of party members who want Erin O'Toole to face a leadership review within months.

Marilyn Elliott, who served on the body as a representative from Alberta from 2013 to 2021, wrote to the national council Thursday to challenge party president Robert Batherson's contention that a petition launched by Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters is out of order.

In November, Batters launched a petition calling for O'Toole to face a leadership review in six months, rather than waiting for a planned vote at the 2023 party convention that could trigger a new leadership race.

Under the party's constitution, a referendum on any matter can be launched if five per cent of Conservative members in at least five provinces sign a petition calling on the party to poll the membership on the topic.

Batters blamed O'Toole for the Conservatives' failure to win government in the recent election, saying "he flip-flopped on policies core to our party within the same week, the same day, and even within the same sentence."

O'Toole kicked Batters out of his national caucus the very next day.

In a letter to Batters that he released online, Batherson said the question she is proposing to ask does not adhere to three sections of the party's constitution.

He said that the leadership selection process can only be triggered if a leader dies, retires or voluntarily resigns from the post — or if more than 50 per cent of the delegates assembled at a party convention vote in favour of a new leadership election.

There is no provision in the section of the constitution dealing with leadership selection for the process to be "initiated by petition or referendum," he wrote.

In her four-page letter, Elliott wrote that Batherson's response was "both surprising and disturbing" and "encapsulates the idiom 'just because someone says it is so, doesn't mean it is so.'"

She wrote that she consulted with senior lawyers and academics who disagree with Batherson's conclusions.

She dismissed his reference to Section 7 of the party's constitution, which deals with national conventions, as having "no bearing whatsoever" on the petition.

Section 10 of the constitution, which deals with leadership selection, "does not exclude a petition calling for a referendum on any topic, including asking the membership for a confidence vote," she wrote.

Watch: O'Toole defends decision to oust Batters from caucus

She argued Batters' petition merely asks members if they should hold a referendum to stop O'Toole from "delaying a review for over 16 months" — a scenario she said would thwart the spirit of the rule requiring him to face a secret-ballot vote of delegates at the first convention after an unsuccessful election.

"The petition does not seek to trigger a 'leadership selection process,' only a referendum," she wrote.

Section 12 of the party's constitution, which deals with polls, petitions, and referenda, "has no exclusions on the scope of the question posed to the membership," Elliott wrote.

She told the party president she was "astounded" by how he's interpreting the constitution so "narrowly," saying it's not respectful of party members.

"Your interpretation begs the question of whether the party is fearful of the results of such a petition. Your actions likely constitute, at best, an overreaching of authority for which the petition process was precisely entrenched in the constitution," Elliott wrote.

More than 6,300 party members have signed Batters' petition, according to a website set up to promote it. To sign, a Conservative must have been a party member for at least 21 days.

'Nothing of substance' in letter, says Conservative Party president

Batherson told CBC News that he stands by his assessment of the petition "100 per cent."

"There's nothing of substance in Marilyn Elliott's letter that has changed my opinion," he said.

He told CBC that Elliott has never been shy expressing her opinions and that he's "always found her contribution spirited and entertaining."

He rejected claims that he's trying to silence members or is worried about the petition targeting O'Toole.

"Our concern at national council is to uphold the party's constitution, and we'll continue to do so in the decisions that we make together, and the decisions that I make as president on points of order and procedure," he said. "And those decisions are always made in accordance with our constitution, supporting bylaws and governance documents."

Batherson said the party's national council will meet next week, where they will discuss Batters' petition. He said he hasn't heard much feedback about the situation.

O'Toole accuses Batters of lacking 'respect' for caucus

O'Toole defended his swift decision to give Batters the boot last month by saying he could not "tolerate an individual discrediting and showing a clear lack of respect towards the efforts of the entire Conservative caucus, who are holding the corrupt and disastrous Trudeau government to account."

Batters fired back by calling him weak and posting online that she was "fired by voicemail." The senator accused O'Toole of trying to silence party members and suppress their will.

In October, at the first Conservative caucus meeting after the election, Conservative MPs voted to give themselves the power to trigger a leadership race to replace O'Toole under the provisions of the Reform Act.

The caucus also adopted a provision giving it the power to remove MPs from caucus, provided that 20 per cent of members formally request an expulsion vote and a majority agree in a secret ballot vote.

O'Toole — still beating back questions about his campaign performance and alleged flip-flops on carbon pricing and firearms policy — said he always supported the Reform Act and downplayed the threat to his leadership.

"This is not about a Sword of Damocles hanging over my head," he told reporters at the time.

But after Batters' petition was launched, senior Conservative sources told CBC News that — in a move to dissuade caucus members from signing — 24 Conservative MPs pledged to sign a letter triggering the Reform Act to enable a vote to expel members who backed the senator's effort.

Though Batters is not welcome in the national Conservative caucus, she remains a member of the Conservative Senate caucus. She has been shut out of all Senate committees since challenging O'Toole's leadership.

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