Erin O’Toole faces damaging prospect of a televised hybrid Parliament for his unvaccinated MPs

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Imagine a new hybrid parliament, with 330-odd MPs sitting in the House of Commons, live and in person, but a handful of uneducated conservatives back out for video participation because they won’t get shots. Erin O’Toole has about a month to escape that damn image.

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As a matter of public policy, Mr O’Toole will not be able to avoid the issue of a vaccine mandate when Parliament returns on 22 November, as Justin Trudeau’s government requires federal public servants as well as air and rail passengers. Show proof of vaccination.

The Conservative leader just ran an election campaign where he – and all his lawmakers – insisted that unvaccinated Canadians should be accommodated in other ways, such as rapid testing. Don’t expect the Tories to change that stance now, even if it is unpopular.

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The bigger problem is not that broader policy issue. It is narrowly symbolic.

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Not that Conservative lawmakers would defend the right of Canadians to vaccinate. It is such that they will be among those Canadians who choose to be denied vaccination.

Politically, it is a completely different picture. And it’s one that Canadians could well be watching on their TV screens five or six weeks from now. So far, the Tories haven’t figured out what to do about it.

Tories who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, as they have for more than a century

It won’t be easy for Mr O’Toole to settle. The conservative leader has not publicly stated how many of his lawmakers have denied vaccination, or even told his own party. But there are certainly some, such as BC MP Mark Strahl, who argued that the party should fight any requirement for vaccination before sitting in the Commons of MPs.

Mr O’Toole must navigate a faction of his own caucus that seeks to refuse vaccination and a wider public does not have much patience for that stand.

Mr Trudeau’s Liberals refused Mr O’Toole’s insistence that all of his candidates be vaccinated, making an election issue. And after the resumption of parliament on 22 November, Liberal, NDP, and Bloc Québécois lawmakers banded together to pass a resolution requiring vaccination to sit in the Commons.

Conservatives can only respond by insisting on a hybrid virtual parliament so that unvaccinated MPs can participate in proceedings by video link – as lawmakers did in the previous session.

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But this creates two problems for conservatives. One is that the Tories had always disliked virtual sessions of the Commons, believing that they took the ops off parliamentary debate and weakened the hand of the opposition. Another is the image of unvaccinated Conservative MPs sitting outside the Commons and figuratively outside the mainstream.

According to federal government statistics, 81 percent of Canadians over the age of 11 have been fully vaccinated. And as the fourth wave continues, it is very clear that some blame vaccinated people who have not been vaccinated for putting the rest of society at risk. A poll conducted in late September by Léger, the polling firm for the Association for Canadian Studies, found that 85 percent of vaccinated Canadians hold negative views of unvaccinated Canadians.

There is a Tory MP looking after the political problem. But it did not come to the fore when the Conservatives held their first post-election caucus meeting two weeks ago, when discussions of Mr O’Toole’s post-election campaign performance and his leadership were in the air. A caucus advisory group convened by health critic Michelle Rempel Garner began discussing the issue last week.

But internal politics is also difficult. Groups of MPs who want to fight for the right to sit in the Commons without vaccinations see some of their allies as MPs generally unhappy with Mr O’Toole. His position on vaccination is not about Mr O’Toole, but caucus unity is already strained.

And if they don’t change their mind, it will present Mr O’Toole with a leadership challenge. Either he can order MPs to be vaccinated, which could prove divisive in the party, or he can allow a politically harmful image of the party to be broadcast on Canadian TV. Conservatives have about a month to choose from.

Find out what’s happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary, handpicked by Granthshala editors (clients only). .

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