By Stephen Petrick
Haliburton’s Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) hopes his party can find a new leader that can bring the country together amid much frustration and division, after his colleagues moved quickly to remove leader Erin O’Toole.
In an interview from Ottawa on Feb. 3, MP Jamie Schmale downplayed any notion that his party was in disarray, but acknowledged there are different viewpoints within the Conservative Party.
“I think all Canadians are frustrated, are tired, they’re done with COVID; they want to know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I think our members are no different,” he said.
Those frustrations and the fact that the party was evaluating its next steps after losing a fall federal election that it thought was winnable, meant that some action had to be taken, he added.
“I think all of that boiled together and culminated to a point where the leadership of Erin was questioned and it was brought to a vote,” he said.
Schmale is the MP for Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock. He was elected to represent the riding for a third straight term in last fall’s federal election.
While it was a landslide win for Schmale locally, the national story was different, as the Tories failed to de-throne Liberal leader Justin Trudeau as prime minister. Trudeau is now in his third term as the nation’s leader. Just like in 2019, the 2021 election saw the Conservative Party win the national popular vote, but not enough seats in the House of Commons to lead the country, giving the Liberals a second straight minority government.
Conservative Party members voted to have O’Toole become their leader after Andrew Scheer stepped down following the 2019 election. However, O’Toole, who represents the neighbouring riding of Durham, saw his time as leader come to an abrupt halt on Feb. 1 when members of the Conservative caucus held a quickly-arranged vote on party leadership. Seventy-three Conservative MPs voted for a change in leadership, with just 45 voting to keep O’Toole on board.
Schmale declined to reveal how he voted, citing “caucus confidentiality” rules. However, he has publicly supported O’Toole in the past. He supported O’Toole’s first run for leadership in 2019, when he ultimately lost to Scheer. Following the vote, Schmale released a statement to thank O’Toole for his service. He described O’Toole as “a friend and a mentor.”
Despite this, Schmale did not express any bitterness when discussing the situation. He said whenever a Conservative Party member loses an election, there’s a mandatory leadership review process, so the vote was not surprising.
When asked whether the party is becoming too divided to function properly, Schmale answered calmly.
“I think we’re all wanting a change in government, all the party members. There are frustrations. Some people were happy about some things, some were not. I think it comes down to the fact that there was a mandatory review coming anyway. I think there was a desire to change.”
Schmale said that some division within the party is to be expected, given that Conservatives come from different parts of the country and have roots in various different ideologies.
He pointed out that these members usually rally around the common ideology they share; a belief that government should be small and taxes should be low.
He said he believes the party can find a new leader that can champion this belief and unite Canadians, citing Stephen Harper’s run as prime minister, from 2006 to 2015 as a successful example.
“The next leader has to have a bold vision for Canadians,” he said.
The Conservative Party announced on Feb. 2 that Candice Bergin, a Manitoba-based MP, will serve as interim leader.
Schmale said the party will look to have a new, permanent leader in place by the summer, so that person is in a good position to advocate for Canadians when Parliament resumes from its summer break in the fall.
He expects the leadership race to centre largely around fiscal issues, given that inflation is abnormally high, and that’s an issue that impacts virtually all Canadians.
“The kitchen table issues, I think , are going to be front and centre,” he said.
Schmale’s statement acknowledged that extraordinary challenge O’Toole faced.
“The job is a difficult one during normal times, but was made all the more harder during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he wrote.
The statement also rallied Conservatives to come together.
“Now is the time to move forward with a new leader who will unite our country and provide an alternative to rising inflation and deficit and unparalleled divisions created by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.”