Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole today defended his decision to turf a Saskatchewan senator from caucus for pushing a petition to hold an earlier leadership review, saying Sen. Denise Batters is not a team player.
Speaking to reporters before a Conservative caucus meeting, O’Toole said Batters forced his hand by starting a petition that undermines the Official Opposition’s efforts to hold the government to account.
“It was a necessary decision to make for the well-being of our caucus, our Parliament and our country,” O’Toole said. “We’re united on our way forward as a team. People that are now allowing their frustrations and their own personal agendas or issues on the pandemic to interfere with our progress are not part of that team.
“That’s why we made the decision last night. You don’t want to make the decision, but she really made it for herself.”
O’Toole said he doesn’t want to see the party consumed by internal squabbling. He said he wants Conservative MPs focused on the economy, “a corrupt and cover-up-prone Liberal government” and what he calls “a professional approach to dealing with the pandemic.”
O’Toole said Batters is “not putting the team and the country first” and had to be shown the door.
WATCH: O’Toole addresses senator’s ousting from Conservative caucus
Batters hit back at O’Toole in a statement of her own, saying he is a thin-skinned leader who “cannot tolerate criticism.”
“I started a petition, as any member of the Conservative Party may do under our party’s constitution. It asked that our members simply have the say they deserve on the leadership and future direction of our party, in an expedited manner that would be the usual course of action after an election loss,” Batters said in her statement.
“After the election, I raised my concerns with Mr. O’Toole directly. He did not respond and he did not act. I then asked publicly that our members have a voice. His response now is to kick me out.”
Batters said O’Toole is trying to suppress dissent by using “threats” and “intimidation” to force MPs to fall in line.
“If Mr. O’Toole is certain that the members of our party support the new direction in which he is taking our party, he should have nothing to fear by facing our members democratically in an expedited confidence vote. That he is fighting against this with threats and intimidation to caucus speaks volumes,” Batters said.
Conservatives eager to keep O’Toole in his position have gathered support from caucus members willing to dump MPs who back the Saskatchewan senator’s petition.
Senior Conservative sources with knowledge of caucus matters told CBC News Tuesday 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 Batters’ petition.
One of the act’s provisions is a mechanism to kick MPs out of a 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.
Batters suggested O’Toole is following a “double standard” because other caucus members who have voiced concerns about his leadership have stayed in the Tory fold while she got the boot.
“My fellow Conservative Senate caucus colleague levelled similar complaints against Erin O’Toole, even going further to call for his resignation. Yet, he remains a member of the national caucus while I am expelled,” she said.
In an Oct. 4 letter sent to Conservative MPs and senators and obtained by CBC News, Nova Scotia Sen. Michael 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 the letter, 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.
‘The beginning of the end’
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.”
At least one Conservative caucus member backed Batters in the fight. The member, who spoke to CBC News on background for fear of reprisal from O’Toole, said dropping Batters from caucus was a “sign of weakness.”
“For Erin, this is the beginning of the end,” the Conservative said in an interview. “It’s a position of weakness. A real leader would say, ‘Let’s have a vote,’ and trigger a caucus vote to see just how much support he really has.”
The caucus member said the more O’Toole tries to “suppress” dissent, the more the anti-O’Toole movement will grow. The Conservative compared O’Toole to Wojciech Jaruzelski, a Soviet puppet leader in 1980s Poland who imposed martial law to silence opposition, only to be toppled by invigorated anti-communists.
“He’s set up the Conservative fund, he’s set up the [Office of the Leader of the Opposition], the party executive, he’s got the shadow cabinet and his house executive. He’s set up all that to protect himself. But one thing he can’t protect himself from is the grassroots.”