O'Toole kicks senator who questioned his leadership out of the Conservative caucus

·6 min read
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has kicked Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters out of the national caucus a day after she launched a petition calling for an expedited review of his leadership.

"As the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, I will 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," O'Toole said in a media statement late Tuesday.

The statement was released shortly after Batters emerged from a virtual meeting of the Senate Conservative caucus. The Conservative leader in the Senate, Manitoba Sen. Don Plett, took no action against Batters on that call.

Instead, Batters said she learned she was out of the Conservative fold through a telephone message from O'Toole.

"Tonight, Erin O'Toole tried to silence me for giving our CPC members a voice. I will not be silenced by a leader so weak that he fired me VIA VOICEMAIL," Batters said in a social media post.

"Most importantly, he cannot suppress the will of our Conservative Party members!"

Batters launched the petition Monday, saying she and other party members have lost faith in O'Toole. She argued the party experienced "significant losses" in the fall campaign after O'Toole flip-flopped on major issues such as carbon pricing, firearms and conscience rights. She said she wants members to have a say on O'Toole's future prior to the planned 2023 party convention.

Party rules require an automatic leadership review at the first national convention following a failed federal election campaign. Batters has said she wants that vote to happen in the next six months.

"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 statement announcing the petition.

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 through a referendum.

And, only a day after the anti-O'Toole effort was launched, a spokesperson for Batters said the petition has collected 2,000 signatures already.

The break with Batters comes as Conservatives eager to keep O'Toole in his position gather support from caucus members to dump MPs who back the Saskatchewan senator's petition.

Senior Conservative sources with knowledge of caucus matters told CBC News that — in an attempt to discourage caucus members who are considering signing that petition — 24 Conservative MPs have pledged to sign a letter triggering the Reform Act, which would then enable a vote to expel members who back the Batters' petition.

The Reform Act — legislation drafted by Conservative MP Michael Chong and adopted by Parliament — is designed to give MPs more decision-making power in a parliamentary system that has become increasingly centralized around party leaders and their teams.

One of the act's provisions is a mechanism to kick MPs out of the caucus. At least 20 per cent of caucus members must formally request an expulsion vote. If enough agree, a secret ballot vote is then held to decide the fate of that MP.

Conservative sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said at least 70 MPs have indicated they would vote to expel MPs who are not supportive of O'Toole — enough to meet the minimum 50 per cent required under the act.

The sources would not name any of the MPs who pledged to sign the letter and CBC News has not independently confirmed that number.

O'Toole himself voiced support for the Reform Act last month.

WATCH: Sen. Batters rejects request to withdraw petition calling for O'Toole's ouster

In addition to giving caucus the power to kick an MP out of caucus, the Reform Act also gives MPs the power to prompt a leadership review.

"I've supported the Reform Act since Michael Chong brought it in. I voted for it in 2015, in 2019 and I encouraged people to vote for it today," O'Toole told reporters ahead of an Oct. 5 caucus meeting where Conservative MPs were to decide whether the Reform Act would be in effect for their caucus in this session of Parliament.

"This is not about a Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. We're united as a team. This is about having a fair and transparent process that a team must have when it respects one another, for electing a chair, for making determinations about membership in the caucus and about leadership," O'Toole said. Conservative MPs ultimately adopted all of the act's provisions.

While MPs who support her position may face expulsion, Batters is pressing on with her petition.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

Late last night, however, party president Rob Batherson said the petition is out of order.

"The question you are proposing to ask in a referendum does not adhere to the Constitution of the Conservative Party of Canada," Batherson said in a social media post.

Other Conservative insiders tell CBC News that Batherson is wrong and that Batters is following the rules. That could set up a battle before the party's national council, the governing body that will decide if the petition can proceed as planned.

Another Conservative parliamentarian who has spoken out against O'Toole, Nova Scotia Sen. Michael MacDonald, is still a member of caucus even though he has cited concerns similar to those voiced by Batters.

In an Oct. 4 letter sent to Conservative MPs and senators and obtained by CBC News, MacDonald called O'Toole's move to the political centre in the last election "a strategic failure."

"Part of the issue was that by the end of the campaign nobody knew what Erin stood for, including many card-carrying Conservatives," MacDonald said in letter, while adding O'Toole's "evasion" and "talking points" during the campaign turned off voters.

"He ran in the 2017 leadership as a bit of a red Tory, then in the 2020 leadership as 'true blue' then as leader he turned the party back to the left. So people ask themselves, what is he – a red Tory centrist, a blue Conservative, or just someone who tacks with the wind and goes where the winds carry him?" MacDonald wrote.

MacDonald said sticking with the status quo would be "a mistake" and "a gift to the Liberals that this party and this country cannot afford."

While there are voices of dissent, several Conservative MPs took to Twitter to try to discredit Batters and those backing the petition.

'This helps Justin Trudeau'

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

Melissa Lantsman, the newly elected MP from Thornhill, said Batters needs to "smarten up."

"We have a cost of living crisis, out of control inflation, a war on Canada's energy sector and a waning reputation on the world stage. That's just a start. This helps Justin Trudeau, not Canadians," she said.

Batters did get support today from a high-profile ex-MP — former Conservative national caucus chair David Sweet.

Sweet, who supported O'Toole in the party's 2020 leadership race, said the harsh criticism Batters has faced is unwarranted.

"With thousands already signed onto the petition and dozens of former colleagues expressing concerns to me directly, this is far more than one senator expressing frustration with leadership," he said.

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