Several days ago, I was planning to write about Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and his failure to stand up to a rump of his caucus who are bloodthirsty to replace him, many of whom with ambitions of their own. That changed somewhat since then, when O’Toole concluded that he could not be all things to all people in his party and he finally stepped up to the plate.
Erin O’Toole was elected leader of the federal Conservatives in a heated and acrimonious race. in late August of 2020. Before fighting an election called by the prime minister less than a year later, he had little time to get his feet wet, heal the divisions in is own party, get known by the people of Canada, and be ready to fight a snap election. Even so, he held Trudeau to an unexpected minority government.
Although the circumstances were different, it reminded me of the short tenure of Frank Miller as premier of Ontario in 1985. His race to lead the Progressive Conservative Party in this province was also nasty and divisive. On the advice of most of his advisors, he called an election shortly after that event. If I recall correctly, only Hugh Segal, formerly a stalwart and senior advisor to Premier Bill Davis and subsequently a leadership candidate for the federal Conservative Party and a senator, urged patience, telling Miller people had to see his effectiveness as premier before he went to the polls.
The result was not a pretty one for Conservatives. Although Miller won the most seats, he did not win a majority and he was not allowed to govern due to a pact among opposition parties. And then the wolves in Miller’s own party circled. The sore losers in the recent leadership race, and their supporters, made it impossible for Frank Miller to function effectively, even as leader of the opposition. He had no choice other than to resign. And that worked out well, didn’t it? In the next election, two years later, the Conservatives were reduced to a handful of members in the Ontario Legislature.
In my view, in Ottawa the Conservatives are running down the same path. Their penchant for constant infighting, the backstabbing by sore losers, dumping or trying to dump their leaders before they have a real chance to show what they are made of, is destroying the ability of their party to not only be an effective opposition but also to be a viable alternative to the Liberals in the next election.
In retrospect, Conservative Senator Denise Batters, a Harper appointee, has done her party a favour. She has forced Erin O’Toole’s hand. For too long, in an effort to minimize divisiveness and restore party unity, he has ducked dealing firmly with far-right dissidents within his own party. Now, with Batters’ petition to force an early leadership review, with an eye to replace O’Toole, he really had to put up or shut up. There were just too many of his supporters, both in and out of caucus, who were willing to go to the wall for him but needed to see that he was willing to fight as well.
Denise Batters’ call for an early leadership review could not be ignored. Toronto Sun Journalist Lorrie Goldstein said it best:
“Just a thought about the O’Toole/Batters bun-tossing festival. If I put out a video on social media calling my boss untrustworthy & incompetent while touting a petition to that effect & urging others to sign it, I’d pretty much expect to be fired before I did it.” (via Twitter)
At last, Erin O’Toole’s response was unequivocal. First, he kicked Batters’ butt out of caucus and then he warned that expulsion is in store for any MP who challenges his leadership. “Anyone who is not on that page, who is not putting the team and the country first, will not be a part of this team.”
That was an important first step for O’Toole to demonstrate that, as Conservative leader, he can control his own caucus, provide effective opposition to the current government, and demonstrate that his party, under his leadership, is an effective alternative to the Trudeau Liberals.
A strong and effective opposition is an important function of any democracy. When it is fractured, it cannot do its job of keeping the government of the day accountable, exposing corruption and abuse of power, and offering critical oversight of government policies.
A weak opposition chips away at democracy because it allows governments to get away with things that they should not, such as becoming arbitrators of what constitutes free speech and controlling public opinion on the internet, with which they may or may not agree. It also allows them to control what can and cannot be said during an election campaign. It presents an opportunity to consolidate power and do pretty much whatever they want.
That is why Prime Minister Trudeau undoubtedly laughs when Erin O’Toole is under attack by his own party. The Conservatives are the only real opposition party in Parliament. The Bloc has its own agenda and this government caters to Quebec. The NDP will never vote to defeat the Trudeau government. A weak opposition in a minority government is a generous gift to a prime minister who dislikes being held accountable.
I guess it comes as no surprise that much of the mainstream media in recent weeks seems more occupied with fostering the knife fight within the Conservative party and undermining their leader than they are in holding the government accountable for their actions. It is almost as if they are afraid of Erin O’Toole and see him as a threat.
On a single day last week, a widely read national internet news source featured four of their top five stories on O’Toole and the challenges to his leadership.
Worse was the behaviour of reporters when Conservative members of Parliament from British Columbia, Brad Vis and Ed Fast, were describing the horrors of the massive mudslides and flooding in their province. The media representatives appeared as if they couldn’t care less. Instead, they peppered the MPs about their loyalty to O’Toole and the divisiveness within the Tory party. It was embarrassing to watch.
In spite of attacks within his own party, aided and abetted by some media sources, Erin O’Toole deserves a real chance to prove that he can be an effective prime minister of Canada. That is what the political game is all about. True, it is a blood sport but that is most effectively played out between parties and not internally.
It may take somewhat longer than they had hoped, but if Conservatives really want to prove they are ready to govern again, they must first stop circling the wagons and shooting inward. Instead, they must concentrate all of their energy and efforts on providing a real and effective alternative to the Trudeau Liberals with policies that appeal to Canadians.
With a unified Party, Erin O’Toole is capable of that leadership. He would have a path to victory. Anything less than that, however, more backbiting and infighting, can only lead to many more years in opposition for Conservatives. A divided house cannot stand.
Some perhaps would relish that. I do not.
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc., the parent company of Doppler Online, and he enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.
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