If the Conservatives would ever like to see another PM among their ranks, they need to understand the road to victory involves reaching out to 37 million people, not 73 caucus members.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 7, 2022.
OTTAWA—Seventy-three people were able to vote out a leader who was chosen by 100,000 Conservatives. This is democracy?
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s departure was as hasty as it was dramatic. And in a touch of irony, the author of the private member’s bill that prompted O’Toole’s demise was one of the few people fighting for the leader to stay.
Michael Chong introduced his private member’s bill, designed to give more power to individual parliamentarians, in 2013. Everyone lined up in favour of the legislation in the belief that empowering members would lead to better leadership.
But in a bizarre twist for this strange law, each party is allowed to opt in to the system, or not, at the beginning of each Parliament.
Not surprisingly, the Conservative party was the only one dumb enough to sign on to a piece of legislation which is guaranteed to create chaos for any opposition leader.
The Conservatives have cycled through six leaders in six years, and O’Toole took them closest to power. His popular vote victory didn’t help much because so much of the weight in numbers came from provinces that could never yield a majority.
And O’Toole failed to make a breakthrough in two key provinces that are crucial for election victory, Ontario and Quebec.
O’Toole, an Ontario member, understood that the failure to make sufficient gains in that province was based on the extreme viewpoints taken by many of his team on social issues like abortion.
After the election, he moved quickly to reposition the party by supporting legislation banning gender therapy conversion in the first session of Parliament.
As for the Quebec vote, his Conservative caucus in that province was verbally supporting the legislation on Broadcasting Act amendments at the same time that Tory fundraisers were out trashing the legislation to buck up their coffers.
The bifurcation in the party was not caused by O’Toole. It was prompted by a party schism that has only been exacerbated because of his departure.
Deputy leader Candice Bergen, who enjoyed coffee with the truckers while the occupation of Ottawa’s downtown core was underway, is a well-known opponent of a woman’s right to control her own body.
It was no accident that she was the only leader to neglect to thank O’Toole in the House of Commons for his work as a four-term parliamentarian, until reminded by the prime minister.
Bergen is part of the right wing of O’Toole’s party who will guarantee that they lose the next election because of their refusal to embrace political moderation.
In the hours following O’Toole’s departure, most blame was aimed at the leader’s inability to manage the caucus and to keep people happy.
Negative comparisons were made with previous leaders like prime minister Brian Mulroney who managed to keep his troops onside even when his own popularity numbers were dipping into the teens.
But that comparison is not a valid one. Mulroney was operating from the prime minister’s chair, first among equals. And with that job comes many opportunities to reward and punish internally.
Mulroney also did not face the crazy Chong legislation that could hit any leader on a bad day. The ousters were working for weeks to collect the requisite number of 35 signatures to trigger a caucus vote.
One of them, Pierre Poilievre, is already being touted as a front-runner to replace O’Toole. He is squarely in the camp of the “stinking albatrosses” that former leadership candidate Peter MacKay characterized as the reason for the party’s failure to launch.
Unlike O’Toole, who embraced diversity in supporting the LGBTQ community, Poilievre actually once introduced a private member’s bill to ban health-care funding for transgender individuals, even though the issue is not federal jurisdiction. Other putative candidates include another social conservative, Leslyn Lewis.
But both of them will push the party further to the right.
Those 73 members who booted O’Toole out may not like his message. But upon his departure, he gave a speech which was a potential road map to victory.
The party could win by embracing diversity. The secret of success for leaders like Brian Mulroney was to embrace the Progressives in his party as well as the Conservatives.
As long as there is no place for progressive politics within the party, the Conservatives have zero chance of forming the government.
Instead of dumping O’Toole, the caucus should have heeded his message. Because the road to victory involves reaching out to 37 million people, not 73 caucus members.
Conservatives who are not progressive just won’t cut it.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.