I’m hesitant to overstate the importance of “shadow ministers” in the opposition benches. The insufferable term the Conservatives have taken to calling them obscures the function better exemplified by the previous title – “critics.” Critic slots aren’t real jobs to the extent that cabinet appointments are, who fills them nonetheless revealing of what and whom the opposition leader values.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has appointed a mammoth sized shadow cabinet – so large, in fact, the list of those excluded from it is shorter than the list of those included in it.
In addition to the typical shadow cabinet and leadership roles, O’Toole also appointed dozens of “deputy shadow ministers,” each of whom will presumably rise to the challenge of being their respective minister’s chief critic in the official critic’s absence.
In doing so, however, O’Toole has made a deliberate decision about who the few should be unworthy of titles in his government-in-waiting.
Of the 119 Conservative members of parliament, only 37 were denied a place in the shadow cabinet, relegated to the way back of the back bench.
That’s just under a one-in-three shot of not making the cut, which means you would expect the ones left out to be rookies or the truly unknown.
It’s a fair assumption, but you would be wrong. In fact, the snubbed list has quite a few notable names on it, including Marilyn Gladu, Shannon Stubbs, Chris Warkentin, and Leslyn Lewis, to name a few.
Gladu is the founder of the civil liberties caucus, a group of parliamentarians concerned about vaccine mandates and constituents staring down pink slips because of their decision to not get vaccinated. Stubbs and Warkentin are prominent Alberta Conservatives who have called out their party’s 2021 campaign, which saw significant numbers of votes in strong Conservative ridings get siphoned away by People’s Party of Canada candidates.
Lewis, of course, is the first-term MP whose showing in last year’s leadership race was responsible for delivering O’Toole the down ballot support he needed to clinch victory.
When I look through the naughty list, it doesn’t escape me that most of them are pro-life. In fairness, there are some pro-life caucus members who did snag shadow cabinet appointments, but this doesn’t cancel out the previous observation.
Scott Reid, who endorsed Lewis’ leadership bid, was excluded, as was Cathay Wagantall, who introduced a private member’s bill seeking to ban sex-selective abortion, to name a couple.
O’Toole’s treatment of former political rivals stands in stark contrast to Andrew Scheer’s. In 2017, after Scheer bested 13 others to become the Conservative leader, he appointed nearly all of his former opponents with seats in caucus to roles in his shadow cabinet, even Maxime Bernier, with whom he shared an acrimonious rivalry throughout the campaign. (Brad Trost, who finished fourth, was not included.)
Of O’Toole’s three leadership competitors, one was kicked out of caucus (Derek Sloan), another was strongly pushed away from seeking a seat (Peter MacKay) and the one who did make it to parliament, Leslyn Lewis, has been marginalized and denounced by the leader.
Whatever one thinks of Lewis, it’s important to note the fanfare with which O’Toole welcomed her into the party, even going so far as to secure her a safe Ontario seat in a riding to which she had no connection before deciding she wanted to run there.
This is not the way to build a coalition, and it doesn’t strike an observer as the conduct of someone who feels they are on solid ground with their own leadership.
The same is true of the Conservatives’ suspension – and subsequent inquisition – of national councillor Bert Chen who launched a petition calling for an earlier review of O’Toole’s leadership.
By punishing and silencing Chen, the party sends the message that O’Toole is unable to withstand criticisms and challenges to his leadership, so anyone lobbing them must be dispatched.
This betrays the elusive yet idealized ‘big tent’ approach to Conservative politics. But it also specifically calls into question the promise of acceptance and tolerance that O’Toole offered social conservatives when he was seeking the leadership a year ago as an unequivocal non-social conservative.
Sidelining this faction of the party isn’t a new phenomenon, but it does show that the lessons of September’s election have yet to be internalized.
Critics of the Conservatives have asked whether the party is allergic to victory. I wonder if the more fundamental problem is an allergy to its own supporters.