Chairman's Desk

Erin O’Toole’s treatment of caucus rabble-rousers is proof he is determined to lead a winning Conservative party

No one seems to be cutting Erin O’Toole any slack. The small faction of Conservative MPs who this week claimed to be forming a “civil liberties caucus” within the party must have had their leader banging his head against the first wall he could find at Stornoway.

And who on earth could blame him? On the cusp of recovering from a pandemic that has engulfed us for two years, and approaching a much-anticipated return to Parliament, one could not envision a more ludicrous hill to die on for these caucus members.

Since her bizarre comments last week, MP Marilyn Gladu, the leader of this so-called civil liberties caucus, has predictably and thankfully backtracked her comments and apologized to O’Toole.

But despite the lack of substantive support for their grandstanding, the event was vexing for O’Toole just the same. When the Opposition leader takes his seat in the House this month, he will be setting the tone for holding the new government to account. He simply cannot afford to be undermined by this chicanery.

Thankfully, Erin O’Toole did not shrink from this test. Indeed, he faced it head on: effectively nipping the movement in the bud, exiling the outliers to the backbenches and bolstering both his public image and his control of the party. Every living Tory leader in Canada was cheering. Each could tell you about wrangling caucus divisions, but the sheer unpopularity of the position these MPs took was a uniquely existential challenge for the party’s electoral chances.

Modern conservatism in Canada has been plagued by division and identity crisis, but the actions of Gladu et al. were more akin to a suicide vest than a principled stand on policy. With 80 per cent of Canadians and 75 per cent of Conservative voters supporting vaccine mandates for federal public servants, the fringe position of this bunch threatened to tank the entire party at a critical juncture.

But Erin O’Toole has learned some important lessons since September’s election. While certain ambitious Conservatives believe there is some value in sticking their necks out on vaccines, blessedly their leader realizes just how damaging it is in the long run.

While destined to never garner widespread support, the “civil liberties” charade raises an issue known to rouse some libertarians, a demographic that looks accessible at first blush. But in reality, this group are a fickle bunch. They are as likely to vote for a Green or PPC candidate — or not at all — as they are to remember the Tories’ stand on vaccines.

Staring down this dilemma, O’Toole acted with a controlled, calm authority that once again demonstrated his mastery of his role. It speaks volumes that most of his response played out behind the scenes, with the leader stepping in publicly just enough to make his views known.

No grandstanding, just a firm and sincere condemnation of vaccine skepticism and an even firmer signal that it has no place in his shadow cabinet. What’s more, the response was both clever and wise enough to avoid affording any further oxygen to his potential leadership challengers.

Erin O’Toole’s choices portend well for managing future caucus divisions, but the whole debacle goes to show that sadly, like so many of his predecessors, his tenure will be marked by obstacles and challenges from within his own party.

While the effective denunciation of rebellious vaccine skeptics is a feather in his cap, the episode still provides fodder for those who would claim the party is less than focused on providing substantial opposition come Nov. 22.

If, on that day, certain Conservative MPs are barred from the House due to their vaccination status, O’Toole will have to act with equal strength, authority, and most importantly alacrity to distance himself from their wrong-headedness.

Having passed this crucial test, he is no doubt anticipating the next. Those banished backbenchers would do well to get behind their leader and focus on providing an effective and fearless opposition if Conservatives are to have a credible future in Canadian politics.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on November 14, 2021.

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