The dilemma facing the Conservative leader – the dilemma facing any Conservative leader – is familiar. To win the party leadership, you have to have one set of policies. To win the country you have to have another.
Erin O’Toole’s solution to this dilemma was equally familiar. To bridge the gap between party and public, he simply promised them each different things, hoping the first would not mind and the second would not notice. And indeed, had the public not noticed, and Mr. O’Toole been elected, the party would probably not have minded, much. Power is the ultimate sedative.
Alas, you can only push this so far. The contradictions – between pricing carbon and not pricing it, banning automatic weapons and not banning them, and so on – were too glaring. Eventually the country got wise; then the party got mad. A leader who sacrificed principle for power might be forgiven, as might a leader who sacrificed power for principle. But a leader who sacrificed both, for nothing – who sold them out and still lost? That’s a hard thing to survive.
Hence Mr. O’Toole’s latest persona: neither the angry ideologue of the leadership race nor the smiling pragmatist of the election, but the hardened autocrat, practised dealer in the harsher sort of power politics, willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto his office.
The exclusion of dissenters from last week’s list of shadow cabinet appointments was the genteel face of this campaign. A leader has the acknowledged right to restrict the plum jobs to his supporters, even if some of the most successful have made a habit of reaching out to their opponents.
But Mr. O’Toole, in his quest to stamp out dissent, has gone much further. Those who have publicly questioned his leadership have found themselves ejected from the party’s governing body, in the case of national councillor Bert Chen, or from caucus, as in the case of Senator Denise Batters.
Mr. Chen’s crime was to start a petition demanding a referendum on whether to “recall” Mr. O’Toole as leader. For this he was not only indefinitely suspended but investigated (a party lawyer ordered him to surrender all communications with “any party member, party activist, interest group or interested person regarding the petition”).
Ms. Batters’s petition also calls for a referendum, but on whether to hold a leadership review: a vote on whether to have a vote. It’s not clear whether a review can be triggered in this way under party rules, but as a review is already mandatory at the first party convention after any election loss, her proposal amounts to rescheduling the one that was already planned: from two years post-election to six months.
For this she has been defenestrated – still the leader’s prerogative, with regard to senators: MPs, after the recent vote by caucus to adopt the relevant provision of the Reform Act, can only be expelled by a vote of caucus. Not that MPs are any freer to dissent: Soon after the Senator’s fate was decreed, it was leaked that some 70 members of caucus stood ready to vote to expel anyone who opposed Mr. O’Toole’s leadership. The beatings will continue until the morale improves!
So the Reform Act, which was supposed to limit the powers of the leader, will instead be used to enforce them. I’m not sure which is loopier: the idea that 59 per cent of the caucus might vote to expel the other 41 per cent, or the thinking behind it, that criticizing the leader should be a firing offence – indeed, that loyalty to the party equals loyalty to the leader.
I realize the Tories are hardly the first Canadian party to take this position: recall the expulsion of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal caucus two years ago. But we should still be aware of how unusual – how creepy – an idea this is. How is a meaningful leadership review even possible if anyone who publicly opposes the leader is forced out of the party?
Other parliamentary democracies do not do this. A British or Australian or New Zealand MP can openly plot against his or her leader without facing expulsion from the party. This is because a British or Australian or New Zealand MP is still considered a person of some note, entitled to his own views.
Only in Canada have MPs become such utter pylons as to be expected to give unquestioning support to anything the leader does or says. That extends, in the present case, to endorsing the leader’s unilateral repudiation of much of established party doctrine. Loyalty to the leader now requires, quite explicitly, disloyalty to the party.
Caucus revolts are not unknown in Canadian politics, especially in opposition – and especially among the Conservative party. For the Conservatives have, historically, been the party of the “outs,” those who for one reason or another are not part of the dominant political caste and its beliefs. Orthodoxy tends, by its nature, to uniformity – whereas people might have a hundred different reasons for dissenting from it.
Liberals, in particular, are united by the belief that they should be in power. Conservatives are united only by the belief that someone else should not be in power. It should not be entirely surprising to find that principle applied within their own ranks.
A strong leader, or at least a realistic one, does not insist on unanimous shows of support. Unanimity is not found in democracies (although it is found in the Liberal caucus, which last week voted unanimously not to arm itself with any of the Reform Act’s four powers), and in any case support is usually best offered rather than demanded.
If Mr. O’Toole feels he has the support of the party, he has no need to hide from its judgment. He should welcome a review of his leadership, and the sooner the better. Or if he does not have the support of the party, why is he still leader?
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.