Caucus relations to stay on O’Toole’s radar in 2022, say experts, strategists

By Palak Mangat January 12, 2022

All eyes will be on Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and his caucus management in the early days of 2022, say some veteran Hill watchers, as parliamentarians ready themselves for the House’s return on January 31.

With no clear heir waiting in the wings, the heat is on for the captain to show his leadership chops after last fall’s election loss.

Speaking to Parliament Today, Conservative strategist Garry Keller, now with StrategyCorp, said a string of stories toward the tail end of 2021 highlighted that a “small number” of MPs remain unsupportive of O’Toole.

“I think the grand mass of caucus members are in a ‘show me’ state, of ‘OK, show me what you can do with your leadership,’” said Keller, a former aide to then-interim CPC leader Rona Ambrose.

Given existing fissures within the party on policy matters (like the carbon price and Quebec’s controversial Bill 21), Keller said MPs will be looking to O’Toole to show how he can “better engage caucus” in the process to develop a future platform, given he has signalled his intent to lead the Tories into another election.

He predicted MPs will allow O’Toole until about the summer break to hammer out the CPC’s “focus [and] communications,” while showing how he plans to refine its ground game to pick up more seats in the next campaign.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole addresses supporters in a recent Facebook Live video. (Erin O’Toole/Facebook)

With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau handed a “workable minority,” there is no “rush” for O’Toole to show his work quite yet, ahead of an election post-mortem by January 31.

Despite emphasizing the need for unity throughout the summer, O’Toole has been dogged by dissenting opinions within the Tory tent and explicit challenges to his leadership from Senator Denise Batters — all in his first full calendar year of leading the team.

NDP strategist Cam Holmstrom, now with Bluesky Strategy Group, said Batters’ petition to review O’Toole’s leadership and her subsequent booting from the party’s national caucus made waves. But that she still sits as a member of the Conservatives’ upper chamber caucus signals there may be others who share her sentiment.

But O’Toole has few “levers” at his disposal for caucus discipline, given he could be voted out under Reform Act provisions his party agreed to in the beginning of the session. “If enough of them got upset at the same time … [the challenge] will come from within the caucus,” said Holmstrom.

He noted that some social conservative MPs, like Ted Falk, were caught by surprise by O’Toole’s decision to fast-track government legislation to ban conversion therapy via a unanimous consent motion in November.

“Under normal circumstances, any caucus would be fuming at that, let alone one where you already have divisions and people who don’t think he’s the real deal,” said Holmstrom.

But Keller noted early signs of unity may be slowly emerging from the blue team, with three CPC MPs coming out since the new year to demand committee meetings resume ahead of the House’s return. After a slow start to parliamentary activities last fall, “people now have something to focus on” with their critic and committee appointments, said Keller, which helps keep MPs on message.

Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at the University of Windsor, said O’Toole “is not doing himself any favors by continuing to be on” what she describes as the wrong side of vaccination issues.

Last week, O’Toole urged leaders to accommodate those who have not gotten their jabs, decrying Trudeau for “dividing” Canadians. He added governments need to contend with the “reality” that a “small number” will remain unvaccinated.

Miljan’s advice for O’Toole in 2022 is to “find a policy that appeals to Conservatives and don’t budge. Try not to cave on your own positions.”

“He’s not clear on what kind of Conservative he is, and in the end, he ends up bending to public pressure,” said Miljan, contrasting him to Trudeau, who “may be wrong” but tends to “double down,” which shows strength in his convictions.

PM unlikely to ‘relinquish’ role, says prof

Meanwhile, Hill chatter has already heated up in recent months about the PM’s possible successors amid speculation this could be his final term at the party helm, with his deputy Chrystia Freeland a frequent name tossed around, though the Globe detailed that Mélanie Joly and François-Philippe Champagne could also emerge as contenders.

Trudeau, who’s maintained he wants to stay on for another election, is likely seeking another majority to round out his legacy, meaning his “exit plan” is nowhere near complete, said Miljan. Given the “cult following” of loyalists he’s amassed throughout the years, she said it would be a “huge risk” for the Grits to look to a possible successor unless he actively “relinquishes” the post.

With the virus “consuming everything” and forcing the Grits to rejig their legislative agenda, Holmstrom will be watching how quickly Trudeau’s ministers move on their “ambitious” mandate letters, some of whom (like Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault) have a fairly lengthy to-do list. If the PM is thinking about his “legacy,” he will need to incentivize his inner circle to make good on their promises coming out of the gate, he said.

“This is a real governing period for this [party], finally. They didn’t really get to have one in the last Parliament,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a January 6 press conference.

Qualtrough, Miller, Duclos are ones to watch

Among the key players to watch for Holmstrom in 2022 is Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller. “As an Indigenous person, I’m naturally skeptical” of whoever holds that role, he said, but the thrice-elected MP and longtime Trudeau friend came into the role “with humility,” prompting Holmstrom to wonder “how long it would last and how well it would hold up.”

While it can be “soul crushing” to have to answer for a government that does not “follow through” on its reconciliation agenda, Miller’s first comments in the senior posting last fall, that it is “time to give land back” to Indigenous people, signals “he understands where communities are at and the meaning behind these words.”

Holmstrom’s impression is that the remarks are not just “buzz words” to Miller, who is also considered among the more effective communicators in cabinet.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos will continue to stay “front and centre,” said Miljan, as the country comes to terms with a health-care system that “essentially requires, in a health emergency, that we ration care” amid staffing shortages and capacity concerns.

For Keller, the dynamic between Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson will be one to watch — as they’ve both been “empowered” by the PM to “lead” on climate change and efforts to “restructure the economy” — which could highlight tensions between some premiers and federal ministers.

Enter Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, who sits on four cabinet committees and is known for “having a pretty good political nose,” said Keller. The veteran Grit has a “pretty large power base” through those committee postings and will play a key role in stickhandling relations with provincial leaders.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, whose file tends to get overlooked, is charged with ushering in several EI benefit programs in her mandate letter and is seen as a “trusted hand” by Trudeau, who’s appointed her to four cabinet committees. “Sometimes, quiet competence gets things done. I don’t think many people have anything bad to say about [her],” added Keller.