Experts split on whether Conservatives’ committee makeup will impact leadership picture

By Palak Mangat September 24, 2021

With the new Parliament expected to see Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole attempt to curry favour within his similar-looking caucus in a bid to keep his job, committee roles could take on a renewed importance, one veteran Hill observer said.

Speaking to Parliament Today, NDP strategist Cam Holmstrom predicted the Tories would come out guns blazing against the governing Liberals once committees resume their work, opting for a more offensive approach at the venues where much of the bread and butter of the parliamentary process is hammered out.

“You’re going to see some more aggressive stuff from committees, especially from the Bloc and Conservatives, especially if Mr. O’Toole is still holding on [to this job by then],” said Holmstrom.

He predicted it would serve “as a way to try and manage the caucus and show his ‘true blue’ bonafides,” a sentiment the captain trumpeted last summer during the leadership race but was silent on during the election campaign as he attempted to pivot to a more centrist mantra.

Conservative strategist Garry Keller of StrategyCorp said the direction appeared successful in some parts of the country, like out east, where the Tories unseated Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan. Her historically blue South Shore—St. Margarets, N.S. post had been painted red since 2015, but Rick Perkins narrowly secured it this time around.

“I can’t quibble with the overall strategy. I think it was the right strategy to make that grand bargain and grow the party and tent,” Keller said. “Those who are saying we need to run a far more right-wing campaign next time — I’m not sure that is going to lead to success.”

O’Toole is already facing vocal threats to his job after Monday’s outcome handed him a similar second-place finish in the House behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with one Conservative national councillor launching an online petition calling for his recall.

A referendum on O’Toole’s tenure is scheduled for 2023, though it should be sped up given he did not become PM, the councillor argued — calls which have received mixed reaction from party brass on social media and were dismissed by the party president.

Since Monday, a steady stream of endorsement-like tweets have been sent out from several Conservative MPs and organizers, with some commentators urging O’Toole be given a shot at keeping the top job.

Returning Alberta MP Ron Liepert got in on the action yesterday, condemning the public petition as divisive and urging patience, saying the party could not afford to “get into this revolving door of leadership campaigns.”

‘Bridge the gap’ between old guards, urges strategist
Still, Holmstrom said it’s clear O’Toole “needs to find ways to satisfy those in his caucus who are not happy with him,” and could do so by handing them committee roles, which some MPs regard as “red meat” in drawing attention to the Liberals’ and PM’s lapses in judgment.

The House ethics and finance committees, for example, made headlines last summer for holding highly charged meetings on the WE Charity affair, with then-finance minister Bill Morneau sharing explosive testimony about his links to the group shortly before he stepped away from public office.

Among the MPs who had testy exchanges with the co-founders during those meetings were the NDP’s Charlie Angus and Conservatives’ Pierre Poilievre, who is widely speculated to be interested in his party’s leadership. (Poilievre ultimately pulled out of the race last summer to spend more time with family, before his partner gave birth to their second child this month.)

“Let [Poilievre] go and do committee, let him do his ethics thing, bang on the desk and rant and rave, do all that for a while,” said Holmstrom, suggesting such performances can rile up those who hold strong anti-Trudeau sentiments within the party and its base. “The only way it would really backfire on O’Toole is if he really tries to do something different.”

Carefully crafted committee appointments could also act to “shore up [O’Toole’s] leadership,” he added, if those with expected ambitions interested in replacing him are occupied with holding studies and combing through proposed legislation.

“If I’m trying to keep the bear at bay, I want to find some red meat to toss it to at least keep the bear occupied for a little while so I can get a little bit more distance,” said Holmstrom. “To me, that’s what those committees could serve as.”

The strategist noted O’Toole made waves while campaigning alongside former PM Brian Mulroney, who once described himself as a modern centrist, instead of the country’s latest Tory prime minister, Stephen Harper, in whose cabinet he served. It’s a move that acted to distance O’Toole from Harper and many veteran Harper-era MPs who still make up the Conservative caucus.

“If you’ve tied yourself to that old guard and the newer old guard doesn’t necessarily like that older guard, you’ve got to do something to bridge the gap,” said Holmstrom. “To me, [committee roles] could be it.”

Keller pushed back on that.

“I think that is looking way too at the game-within-the-game-within-the-game,” said Keller, questioning the memory of Harper and internal party dynamics in the minds of the average voter today.

Keller, a former chief parliamentary advisor to Harper, added there are already “few carrots” to hand out to caucus members in opposition, so he cautioned against reading too much into who gets appointed to such roles.

Plus, he added, should a fellow MP be “hellbent” on challenging O’Toole, “there’s not a carrot you can give them to stop them.”

“People who may be a thorn in the leader’s side, if they have got a course of action in mind, they’re going to pursue that course of action” regardless of a parliamentary role they may have, he said.

Captain’s underdog status earned him traction, says MP
Former NDP MP Peggy Nash said she saw O’Toole go through the regular ups and downs of a campaign trail over the last several weeks. She said he “on the whole, especially early in the campaign, seemed to present a much different face to the Conservative Party that was helpful for them.”

Nash commended O’Toole, who touted his Canadian Armed Forces experience throughout his tenure, and his team’s efforts to be relatable while pressing for progress on the Afghanistan file in the early days of the campaign. “Their point was he’s a veteran and understands what’s happening, and this was a mistake by the Liberals” to call an election as the Taliban seized control of the region.

“I think they gained some traction and just because people had underestimated him, he did gain traction,” said Nash. But the “explosion of Covid cases” in Alberta, along with renewed scrutiny of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who O’Toole has frequently aligned himself with, made up the “twists and turns” of the rest of the campaign.