The Liberals were at least gracious enough to give Erin O’Toole a full 24 hours before openly trying to cause him trouble. But on Tuesday morning, shortly before O’Toole’s first official news conference as leader of the Official Opposition, the Liberals tossed out their first challenge: the new Conservative leader, they said, should move forthwith to remove inflammatory backbencher Derek Sloan from the Conservative caucus.
“Mr. O’Toole has an important decision to make, which will help Canadians understand his vision for the future of our country,” Liberal MP Pam Damoff said in a written statement laying out just some of the things Sloan said while pursuing his own campaign for the Conservative leadership.
Derek Sloan’s status as a Conservative MP is not quite the most pressing issue facing the nation at this moment and the politics of it are not subtle. But it’s a rite of passage for Conservative leaders to be faced with this sort of thing — so Sloan becomes the first test of O’Toole’s ability to both lead his party and explain himself.
The Liberals’ challenge is somewhat unfair. Under the rules adopted by the Conservatives, the leader of the party cannot unilaterally expel an MP from the parliamentary caucus. Even if O’Toole wanted to be rid of Sloan, he would still have to convince a majority of Conservative MPs to vote to expel him.
Sloan’s supporters helped push O’Toole over the top
Some Conservative MPs reportedly pushed for Sloan’s ouster in May, after he publicly questioned whether Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam — who was born in Hong Kong — was working for China. Ultimately, a backbencher put forward a motion calling on him to retract his comments. Sloan insisted that his question had been “rhetorical.”
The only Conservative MP to join Sloan in opposing that motion was O’Toole. A few months later, Sloan’s supporters helped push O’Toole past Peter MacKay for the Conservative leadership.
His comments about Tam may have crossed a line for a significant number of Conservative MPs but Sloan has made multiple statements that O’Toole might not want to be associated with now.
In January, Sloan said that the “the cause of sexual orientation” was “scientifically unclear.” He later said that Liberal legislation to ban conversion therapy — the discredited practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation with counselling — was tantamount to legalized “child abuse.”
Sloan has said he believes Canada should pull out of the UN’s Paris agreement on climate change and withdraw all funding from the World Health Organization. He opposes both mandatory vaccination for COVID-19 and any rule requiring Canadians to wear face masks to curb the spread of the virus. Echoing Donald Trump, Sloan has said that “antifa” should be officially listed as a terrorist organization.
Watch: Erin O’Toole courts social conservatives and broader base
O’Toole is apparently of the view that Sloan has not yet said enough to justify expulsion.
“During a leadership race, there’s always some pressure, there’s a contrast of ideas, and that’s finished,” O’Toole said today when a reporter asked him whether Sloan would remain in caucus. “I received a clear mandate and I’m very excited to meet with my caucus and talk with all of them about uniting and going forward together.”
Asked whether his fellow leadership candidates would have prominent roles on his team, O’Toole expanded on his answer only slightly.
“Derek and I had some very stark differences. We had some areas of overlap, with our concern about the Communist Party of China and some issues. I didn’t agree with some of the ways he characterized those concerns,” he said. “But certainly within a pandemic, within the race we were in, a lot of things are said. We’re united now. We’re going to talk together as a caucus soon.”
The Conservatives’ backbench problems
The “hey, people say a lot of things during a leadership race” defence is candid, at least. O’Toole might have even been referring subconsciously to himself. But there is no rule stating that everything said during a leadership race becomes null and void once the ballots are counted.
For as long as the Conservative Party of Canada has existed, its leaders have struggled to account for the opinions held within its caucus. After being repeatedly tripped up by his backbenchers’ public statements, Stephen Harper came to insist on tight message control and discipline. Andrew Scheer declined to put Kellie Leitch in his shadow cabinet after the former cabinet minister proposed a “values test” for people immigrating to Canada. But then he struggled to explain his own views on abortion and homosexuality.
Perhaps the most democratically altruistic thing for any leader to say is that they are not responsible for all of the opinions held by every member of their caucus, nor is every member of their caucus obligated to share the leader’s opinions. But that explanation only goes so far — it might cover a difference over public policy but it isn’t enough to completely sidestep something truly objectionable or even merely unpopular.
Sloan is staunchly anti-abortion and if that viewpoint or any of his other opinions speaks to some substantial segment of the Conservative base (Sloan won 15.6 per cent of the popular vote on the first ballot Sunday night) then Conservatives might be reluctant to banish him. The flipside of that would be the question of whether Sloan’s presence already threatens to undermine the idea of conservatism that O’Toole wants to present.
If Conservatives are not convinced that Sloan is already more trouble than he is worth, then excluding Sloan from the official list of critics might at least allow O’Toole to put some space between himself and his most notorious backbencher. But it won’t stop the Liberals from pointing in Sloan’s direction.
At that point, if Conservatives are willing to stick with him for now, it might become a question of whether Sloan is content to fade into quiet obscurity or will continue to say things that O’Toole will be asked to explain later.