OTTAWA — A Conservative senator has begun a petition pushing for a review of Erin O'Toole's leadership of the party within six months — the latest rumbling of discontent over losing the recent federal election.
Sen. Denise Batters, a vocal critic of O'Toole, says he cannot lead the party to victory in the next election campaign.
"This campaign was not lost because of Mr. O'Toole's mistakes or inexperience," she said in a video accompanying the online petition. "It was lost because of what Canadian voters perceive as his character flaw, that he is not trustworthy. You can't come back from that."
Batters, who backed the socially conservative Andrew Scheer in the party's 2017 leadership contest and veteran politician Peter MacKay in the most recent one, said a rift among party members is growing.
O'Toole has watered down, and even entirely reversed, the party's policy positions on guns, carbon pricing and conscience rights without input from caucus members, Batters said.
She accused O'Toole of running a failed election campaign that was almost indistinguishable from Justin Trudeau's Liberals despite winning the party leadership claiming to be "true blue."
"Erin O'Toole lectured our party members on election night, telling us we need to have the courage to change — into what he hasn't yet said. But members deserve to have a say on this change and the future direction of this party, including our leadership."
O'Toole lost the October election, in which the Liberals were held to a second consecutive minority government, by every measure, Batters said.
"Our party lost half a million votes, claimed fewer seats and a lower popular vote than in 2019," she said.
The Conservatives won 119 seats in the Sept. 20 election with 33.7 per cent of the popular vote. In 2019, the Conservatives won 121 seats and 34.4 per cent of the popular vote.
O'Toole's office had no immediate comment.
In a series of tweets, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner swiftly urged Batters to withdraw the petition and "have it out in caucus instead."
"I am so frustrated right now. Denise, the Liberals are popping champagne and toasting to you right now. I hope you're happy."
At least half a dozen other Conservative MPs echoed Rempel Garner's view, including Bob Zimmer, Marty Morantz, Randy Hoback, Melissa Lantsman, Dane Lloyd and Alain Rayes.
But Batters said in an interview that she's hearing "a lot of support from caucus colleagues, both senators and MPs."
Within a few hours of posting her petition online, Batters said it had garnered more than 1,000 signatures, including former MPs, riding presidents and "all kinds of people from across the country."
O'Toole is not scheduled to face a leadership confidence vote until the party's national convention in 2023.
Batters is trying to force a leadership review vote much earlier, by getting sufficient signatures on her petition to force a referendum on whether O'Toole should remain as leader.
Under party rules, a referendum of party members may be initiated by a petition submitted to the national council signed by at least five per cent of members in each of at least five provinces. The council would then be responsible for conducting a referendum by secret ballot within 120 days of receiving the results of a valid petition.
However, Conservative party president Rob Batherson informed Batters in a letter Monday, which he posted to Twitter, that her "petition is not in order as it does not adhere" to the party's constitution.
He said the constitution specifies that a leadership selection process can only be initiated by the party's national council following the death or retirement of the leader, a notice of resignation submitted by the leader or a vote by more than 50 per cent of delegates at a national convention.
But Batters countered that she's not trying to initiate a leadership selection process. She said she's simply trying to expedite a leadership review that would otherwise not take place until 2023 and the constitutional provisions Batherson cites do not apply to that.
"There's no limitation in the constitution put on what type of referendum can occur," she said in an interview.
"I think really this leadership review is happening one way or the other and I think it's in the interests of all members, even Mr. O'Toole, that we do this sooner rather than later so we can put it to rest."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2021.
Jim Bronskill and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press