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Senator who challenged O'Toole's leadership excluded from Senate committees

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OTTAWA — Conservative Sen. Denise Batters has been excluded from all Senate committees after challenging Erin O'Toole's leadership.

O'Toole booted the Saskatchewan senator out of the Conservative national caucus last month after she launched a petition aimed at forcing a referendum on his leadership within six months — rather than wait for a scheduled confidence vote at the party's convention in August 2023.

Conservative senators have chosen to keep Batters in their fold, notwithstanding O'Toole's warning that anyone backing her petition would be kicked out of caucus.

Now, however, she has been conspicuously left out of any committee assignments in the upper house.

Sen. Leo Housakos, acting leader of the Conservative Senate caucus, has not responded to a request to explain Batters' exclusion.

Batters declined to comment.

Until now, Batters has been a prominent presence on various Senate committees, particularly the legal and constitutional affairs committee, of which she had been a member since her appointment to the Senate in 2013 by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

During the last session of Parliament, she was deputy chair of that committee, where she mounted strenuous opposition to legislation expanding access to medical assistance in dying.

She was also a member of the committee on rules, procedures and rights of Parliament, on which she'd also sat for eight years.

Prior to that, Batters served as deputy chair of the Senate's internal economy, budgets and administration committee, the governing body of the upper house, and as joint chair of the scrutiny of regulations committee.

Batters' online petition has garnered more than 6,300 signatures so far.

Conservative party president Rob Batherson has asserted that the petition is invalid. The party's constitution spells out the various ways in which a leadership contest can be triggered and makes no provision for a contest to be initiated by petition or referendum, he has said.

However, the constitution also specifies that a referendum on any matter can be launched if five per cent of Conservative members in at least five provinces sign a petition calling for one.

A former member of the party's national council has written Batherson blasting his interpretation of the rules. 

In her letter, Marilyn Elliott says Batherson's position "is an indefensible attempt to thwart a compliant petition and silence the thousands of requests for a referendum of the party membership."

The letter was posted on social media by Batters.

After consulting legal experts, Elliott says the party constitution puts no limits on the topics on which members may petition for a referendum.

She says Batherson's narrow interpretation "begs the question of whether the party is fearful of the results of such a petition." 

Elliott adds that "we will continue to collect signatures" on Batters' petition.

In launching her petition, Batters argued that O'Toole has lost voters' trust by flip-flopping repeatedly on policies, having run as a "true blue" Conservative to win the leadership race and then pivoting to a more moderate, centrist stance during the recent federal election in a failed bid to expand the party's support.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2021.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press