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Conservatives defy Erin O’Toole by siding with critical senator – Toronto Star

Sen. Denise Batters speaks at a rally near Moosomin, Sask., on Feb. 16, 2019.

Conservative MPs from Saskatchewan shot down a bid to kick Sen. Denise Batters out of their parliamentary group, another blow to party leader Erin O’Toole.

By Stephanie LevitzOttawa Bureau

Sat., Jan. 22, 20224 min. read

OTTAWA — Conservative MPs from Saskatchewan shot down a bid to kick Sen. Denise Batters out of their regional parliamentary group this week, in another blow to Erin O’Toole’s efforts to stamp out dissent within his party’s ranks.

The vote came as the Conservative leader gets ready to rally his team at a parliamentary planning session next week, a meeting that normally serves as a unifying point for caucus but is expected to be the latest in a series of tense get-togethers with MPs and senators.

O’Toole kicked Batters out of the party’s national caucus last fall after she accused him of betraying Conservative principles and having no hope of ever winning an election. Batters also launched a petition that calls for a review of O’Toole’s leadership next year to be moved forward.

Despite O’Toole’s move, Batters had remained a member of both the Conservative Senate caucus, which voted not to expel her, and the party’s regional Saskatchewan caucus.

This week, a member motion to expel Batters from the regional caucus was easily defeated, multiple sources told the Star, speaking confidentially so as not to betray caucus confidence.

Batters declined to comment, and Saskatchewan caucus chair Kevin Waugh did not reply to a request for comment from the Star.

Batters’s petition has upwards of 7,600 signatures in favour of a referendum on whether a review of O’Toole’s leadership should be held earlier than one scheduled for 2023.

The party’s national executive has ruled the petition does not conform with the party’s constitution. but frustration with O’Toole and his approach endures.

In recent weeks, O’Toole has been taken to task by the party’s grassroots and some MPs on a number of issues, including his refusal to recommit to a pledge to defund the CBC and a failure to rapidly reinstate a parliamentary committee on China that was popular with many Conservatives.

Meanwhile, polls continue to show the party losing support, a situation some insiders blame on the attention being paid to the most recent surge of COVID-19.

That’s why, those close to him say, O’Toole has been bouncing from issue to issue in recent weeks, attempting to garner attention and keep the grassroots engaged.

Others argue it’s a strategy that’s not working.

“The party wants to see a plan that a team can rally behind,” said one long-time Conservative operative, who spoke on the condition they not be named to speak frankly about strategic discussions.

“People need to see a renewed vision and a willingness to be bold and hungry to win.”

O’Toole has also been trying to mend fences within the party recently, using Facebook Live to connect directly with members and even sending them a survey asking for advice.

“I know the advice I’ll get from a top Conservative like you is far superior to what I’ll hear from any high-priced pollster, consultant or Ottawa insider,” said the survey, a copy of which was obtained by the Star.

Among the issues he asked about were the performance of Conservative party critics, and what party members think of the plan to go after some traditional NDP voters, like private sector union members.

Parts of O’Toole’s campaign platform had been directed specifically at that segment of the electorate.

The extent to which that strategy did or didn’t work formed a piece of the post-election review O’Toole ordered, and the results of the review are to be presented to the caucus next week.

Several MPs have recently told the Star they have doubts about how meaningful that review will be, saying that if it simply blames last summer’s election defeat on the pandemic and the party’s hawkish stance on China — two lines already advanced — no one is going to take it seriously.

“If it doesn’t hold Erin himself as responsible for this, how can we accept anything is actually going to change?” one MP told the Star.

Another looming issue for caucus is O’Toole’s position on Bill 21, the Quebec law that prohibits certain individuals in positions of public authority from wearing religious symbols on the job.

At the last caucus meeting before the Christmas break, there was a near revolt among MPs who were furious that O’Toole had not explicitly condemned the bill after a grade three teacher was reassigned from her Quebec classroom because she wore a hijab.

O’Toole’s position was that while he may be personally against the law, it is Quebec’s jurisdiction and the provincial government’s right to legislate as it likes.

Many MPs disagreed. Those who did so publicly were dressed down in caucus, and told they were cowardly for speaking up as they should have raised the issue behind caucus doors.

O’Toole also promised to strike a working group that would aim to find a policy compromise.

One MP told the Star this week that no such compromise has been reached and several intend to raise the issue anew at this week’s meeting, and call for a formal debate and resolution in opposition to the bill.


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