Editorial

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would rather be leading a Liberal majority government as Parliament resumes this week. Though he lacks a majority behind him, he looks across the aisle at an Opposition leader at war with his own party — and that’s almost as good tactically for the ruling party.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/11/2021 (270 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would rather be leading a Liberal majority government as Parliament resumes this week. Though he lacks a majority behind him, he looks across the aisle at an Opposition leader at war with his own party — and that’s almost as good tactically for the ruling party.

A united opposition with a leader who can trust his own followers would, however, contribute more to Canada’s peace, order and good government.

Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole. (Adtrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole. (Adtrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole quickly lowered the boom last week on Saskatchewan Sen. Denise Batters, a Stephen Harper appointee, when she launched a petition asking the party to hold, six months hence, the leadership review that would ordinarily happen much later.

Mr. O’Toole kicked Ms. Batters out of the Conservative caucus the next day, saying she was not a team player. Her petition, he said, had undermined the party’s work.

Since the Conservative caucus in the Senate did not expel her from its ranks, it was not entirely clear what kind of boom had been lowered. Leaders of the Opposition in Ottawa have few rewards to distribute and few penalties to inflict in order to reward loyalty and punish rebellion. Expulsion from the caucus is the nearest thing to capital punishment in the leader’s arsenal.

Expulsion seemed an extreme response to a proposal to change the date of a leadership review. Like the old practice of executing admirals in the British navy for showing insufficient zeal in battle, it was clearly intended to "encourage" the others. It showed the country a Conservative leader who feared a party uprising and needed to nip it in the bud.

He cannot, however, kick Ms. Batters out of the Senate or the Conservative party, nor can he expel the 5,000 Conservatives who, she says, have already signed her petition. Caucus members are either cheering Mr. O’Toole on or else keeping their mouths shut for fear of missing out on the few crumbs the Opposition leader can distribute.

Mr. O’Toole’s critics in the party have no substitute leader to put in his place. The party is therefore stuck with a leader who is constantly looking over his shoulder to check whether the party is still with him.

In these conditions, Mr. O’Toole has to show great energy and rhetorical force in denouncing Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal colleagues. He has to excite his followers with the brilliance of his political strategy and inspire them with the hope of discrediting the government and driving it from office. This will be hard to do, since the government was returned to power in an election just two months ago.

Mr. O’Toole’s critics in the party have no substitute leader to put in his place. The party is therefore stuck with a leader who is constantly looking over his shoulder to check whether the party is still with him.

The Liberals could not ask for a more favourable position. The Conservatives cannot quickly get rid of Mr. O’Toole, but many of them will not follow him either and he cannot trust them past the door. He must denounce the evil Liberals with all the force he can muster, but the Liberals can safely ignore him because the troops he is trying to lead are effectively demoralized.

Canada needs a skilful and effective opposition to keep the government on its toes. Mr. Trudeau and his colleagues have enjoyed a holiday from opposition all through the COVID-19 pandemic, with Parliament barely functioning and the country counting on governments to manage the emergency.

The sooner the Conservatives abandon their internal squabbles and focus on the work of effective opposition, the sooner Parliament can get back to functioning as it should.