OTTAWA — The race to become the Conservative party’s caretaker for the next few months is becoming more competitive, with MP and former cabinet minister Erin O’Toole announcing his candidacy for interim leadership.
But uncertainty still hovers over the process to replace Stephen Harper and there are tensions over perceived meddling by the outgoing leader’s aides.
Sources say a backlash erupted over the news that a caucus meeting wouldn’t be held until mid-to-late November and rumours that it would exclude defeated MPs. Conservatives are now looking at Nov. 5 for a Parliament Hill gathering.
O’Toole, a former air force captain and lawyer who held the veterans affairs portfolio, faces competition from longtime MPs Rob Nicholson and Diane Finley. Calgary MP Michelle Rempel is also mulling a run.
The 42-year-old O’Toole, who only entered federal politics in a 2012 byelection, is already positioning himself as the candidate representing the new face of the party.
“I really think we have to show that we’re serious about rebuilding right from Day 1 and I think the interim can be part of that,” said O’Toole, who was born in Montreal and says he can hold his own in French in the Commons.
“We need to show that we’re bringing a new approach. I think we can get that out of the gate and start rebuilding and then whoever wins the leadership can take over a unified, strong party that’s ready to be serious in four years.”
O’Toole said it’s time for the caucus to take a different approach in communicating policies and positions. He was viewed as one of the most accessible ministers in Harper’s cabinet, who successfully took over the veterans affairs file after a controversial period under Julian Fantino.
Harper’s tight control of information and limitations on how much parliamentarians could say to the media has been one of the knocks on the Conservative government.
“We shouldn’t fear debate,” O’Toole said. “Our party has always been a party of ideas and principles. I think we should be really proud to talk about those more and not as worried about missteps.”
The interim leader of the Official Opposition is entitled to an extra salary of $80,000, a car and driver and lodging at the official residence at Stornoway.
Whether Conservative senators will be allowed to vote for the interim leader is one of the factors MPs will need to determine. The passage of Michael Chong’s Reform Act in June governing how caucuses operate will need to be analyzed and applied by MPs from all parties as a first order of business.