Conservative senator launches petition to oust Erin O'Toole as leader

·6 min read
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole addresses supporters at an election night event in Oshawa, Ont., in the early hours of Sept. 21, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole addresses supporters at an election night event in Oshawa, Ont., in the early hours of Sept. 21, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Conservative Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters has launched a petition to oust Erin O'Toole as party leader — a high-profile effort by a caucus member who said she lost faith in O'Toole after the Conservative Party suffered "significant losses" in the last campaign.

In announcing her petition, Batters said that on O'Toole's watch, the party has flip-flopped on major issues such as carbon pricing, firearms and conscience rights and has lost once-Conservative seats in urban and suburban ridings in Alberta, B.C. and the Greater Toronto Area.

While O'Toole campaigned as a "true blue" Conservative in the party's leadership race, Batters said he subsequently ran a federal election campaign "nearly indistinguishable from Trudeau's Liberals."

She said these developments demand a leadership review well before the planned vote at the 2023 Conservative convention. As per the party rules, there's an automatic leadership review at the first national convention following a failed federal election campaign — but Batters instead wants that vote to happen in the next six months.

Chris Rands/CBC
Chris Rands/CBC

"Mr. O'Toole flip-flopped on policies core to our party within the same week, the same day, and even within the same sentence. The members didn't have a say on that, but we must have one on his leadership," Batters said in a media statement.

"We can't afford to see our party ripped apart again. When we're divided, the Liberals win."

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

Petition is 'not in order,' senator told

Just hours after Batters launched her effort, however, the party's president Robert Batherson wrote to the senator telling her that her petition "is not in order" and that the referendum process can't be used to launch a leadership review.

Under the party's constitution, Batherson said, 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.

"The question you are proposing to ask does not adhere to the constitution of the Conservative Party of Canada," said Batherson, a long-time Progressive Conservative from Nova Scotia.

Despite the possible constitutional limitations, Batters — who supported Peter MacKay in the 2020 Conservative leadership race — has launched a website (membersvote.ca) to promote the petition.

She said O'Toole has "not learned any lessons" from the party's "devastating loss" in September and must now be shown the door if the party is to have any hope of toppling the Liberals in the next election — which could come at any time in a minority Parliament.

'Flip-flops and weakness'

"It's business as usual. His strategy failed and he refuses to change it. He is surrounded by the same old team with the same old ideas," the membersvote.ca website says.

"His polling numbers keep dropping. His flip-flops and weakness mean that he can never regain the trust from the Canadian people that he lost in the election. Because he refuses to learn from his mistakes, he can't win."

To sign the petition, a Conservative must have been a party member for at least 21 days.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, the party's natural resources critic, said Monday she was "profoundly disappointed" in Batters for launching the petition. She called it an unwanted distraction that will divert attention from more pressing concerns.

"Canada needs stability right now — we are a nation in crisis," Rempel Garner said in a social media post, citing ongoing labour shortages and rising inflation as two issues that should take priority over internal squabbling.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

"Every Canadian will be focused on this [petition] for the next month instead of anything we do in the House. I ask my colleague to withdraw this petition, have it out in caucus instead and for the good of Canada let us MPs get back to work," Rempel Garner said.

Rempel Garner said "Liberals are rejoicing" over Batters' petition tactic. "There will always be differences in a party but we will never overcome the Liberals if we're in open public warfare with each other," she said.

In a subsequent video posted to Facebook titled, "An open message to Denise Batters," Rempel Garner called the senator "irresponsible" for dragging this internal dispute into the public eye.

"I'm so frustrated with this. The Liberals are popping champagne to you. I'm sure the Liberals went out and bought a case of champagne and they're going 'Cheers, Denise Batters. This is great.' We need to get it together, we're the opposition," the MP said.

This is not the first attempt by a Conservative officeholder to dump O'Toole through a referendum. Bert Chen, an elected national party councillor representing Ontario, launched his own petition only days after the party's loss citing concerns similar to those voiced by Batters today.

WATCH: Conservative party councillor launches a petition calling for early leadership review

"The feedback I have gotten over the past several months, and further reinforced since Monday evening, is that Mr. O'Toole has failed as a leader," Chen told CBC News after the federal election.

"I think Canadians want integrity and part of integrity is someone who keeps their promises and is consistent in those promises," Chen said, pointing to O'Toole's shifting positions on everything from guns to climate change to the fate of the CBC.

The party has since thrown the book at Chen by indefinitely suspending him as a national councillor. According to a Nov. 5 letter sent by Arthur Hamilton, the party's lawyer, Chen has been served with a legal notice demanding that he turn over a "complete record of each contact or communication" with any "party member, party activist, interest group or interested person" related to the petition.

"I'm kind of getting used to being blindsided," Batherson told CBC News Monday. "We had the Bert Chen show when he did his thing and now the Senator Batters approach. Anyway, it is what it is."

Batherson said the Conservative Party is unified overall and he doesn't think there is a substantial movement to replace O'Toole. He accused a small group within the party of agitating for O'Toole's removal, calling them "organizers that used to be big wheels in the party, in their own mind, that feel the need to lash out."

"The vast majority of Conservatives, from coast to coast to coast, who contact me regardless of where they are in the coalition, they want the party to get their act together," he added. "They want us to be united, they want us to focus on the issues that Canadians care about and they don't want this type of internal sideshow playing out in the public domain."

Speaking to reporters in early October, Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs said she also wanted a leadership review within six months. She said the party's push to the centre under O'Toole alienated core supporters and caused a significant drop in support in her rural riding of Lakeland.

"The reality is that today, after the 2021 election, Conservatives are more rural, more homogeneous than we've ever been before. And we lost great, strong, necessary colleagues in big cities in every part of this country," she said.

Last week, O'Toole dropped Stubbs from his shadow cabinet of front-bench critics.

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