Erin O'Toole's fate sent a message — MPs are not instruments of a leader's will

Conservative MPs made parliamentary history when they deployed the powers granted by the Reform Act to fire Erin O'Toole as party leader. Future party leaders will have to take notice.

In a system that gives party leaders most of the power, the Reform Act is a pitiless tool of retribution

Then Conservative leader Erin O'Toole listens to a question from a reporter during a news conference following caucus in Ottawa, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

This past week on Parliament Hill was consumed by truck horns and political intrigue. But along with all the noise and drama, we saw parliamentary history made. It should not go unrecognized.

For the first time since the Reform Act was passed into law seven years ago, a party caucus formally challenged and dismissed its party's leader.

Decades ago — and in other parliamentary democracies — that might not have been remarkable. But Canada's political parties have long since moved on from allowing their parliamentary caucuses to choose their leaders. Beginning with delegated conventions a century ago, parties have opted instead for open elections that put the decision in the hands of party members or supporters.

That has brought more citizens into the political process. It also has put party leaders in a position where they are no longer directly accountable to the MPs they're supposed to lead. And popular mandates only further empower already powerful party leaders.

By giving MPs a clear mechanism for challenging and changing leaders, the Reform Act had the potential to rebalance the relationship between MPs and their leaders.

A shift in the party power dynamic

Party discipline is not inherently a bad thing. In many ways, it can be a very good thing. But the discipline exerted in Canada is generally understood to be stricter than anywhere else. And if a parliamentary democracy is richer when MPs feel free to speak their minds, pursue their own initiatives or merely deviate every so often from the party line, then Canadian democracy has suffered from the stifling power that party leaders often wield.

Wednesday's vote by Conservative MPs didn't completely erase that power.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The 73 MPs who voted against Erin O'Toole probably wouldn't have been so quick to do so had they thought the party's members or donors were backing him enthusiastically. In the leadership race to come, power will go back to whoever is willing to pay for a Conservative Party membership.

And endorsements from MPs only matter so much. In 2020, Peter MacKay was endorsed by 47 Conservative MPs while 38 endorsed O'Toole. It was O'Toole who won on the third ballot.

Pawns no more

It also remains to be seen what direction the Conservative Party will take in O'Toole's wake. That direction may colour the way we look at the Reform Act and its use this past week.

But Wednesday's vote sent the message that MPs are not mere pawns of their leader. The next Conservative leader will know that a sudden uprising is at least conceivable.

That threat could lead a future Conservative leader to try to discourage colleagues from adopting the legislation's optional powers. Liberal and NDP MPs have never opted to empower themselves with the law's mechanisms.

O'Toole's dismissal also highlights another possible selling feature of the Reform Act.

Without the Reform Act's formal procedure for permitting a caucus vote, O'Toole's fate might not have been decided until August 2023, when the party was scheduled to hold a leadership review. He might have had to wait around another year and a half for the same result, prolonging his agony.

The end of O'Toole's leadership, in other words, might have played out like the slow destruction of Stockwell Day's leadership of the Canadian Alliance.

When Conservative MP Michael Chong came forward with the Reform Act, it seemed like a good tool for empowering backbench MPs. Now we know it has another useful quality — ruthless efficiency.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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