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

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Conservative Leader and leader of the official opposition Erin O’Toole makes his way to a news conference following caucus in Ottawa, on Oct. 5, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Imagine a new hybrid Parliament, with 330-odd MPs sitting in the House of Commons, live and in-person, but a handful of unvaccinated Conservatives relegated to video participation because they won’t get shots. Erin O’Toole has about a month to avoid that damaging image.

As a matter of public policy, Mr. O’Toole won’t be able to avoid the issue of vaccine mandates when Parliament returns Nov. 22, because Justin Trudeau’s government is requiring federal public servants, as well as air and rail travellers, to show proof of vaccination.

The Conservative Leader just went through an election campaign where he – and all his MPs – insisted that unvaccinated Canadians should be accommodated through other means, like rapid testing. Don’t expect the Tories to change that stance now, even if it is unpopular.

The bigger problem isn’t that broad policy issue. It’s the narrow symbolic one.

It’s not that Conservative MPs will defend the right of Canadians to remain unvaccinated. It’s that they will be among the Canadians who choose to remain unvaccinated.

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

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 so easy for Mr. O’Toole to settle. The Conservative Leader hasn’t said publicly how many of his MPs have declined vaccination, or even told his own caucus. But there are certainly some, such as B.C. MP Mark Strahl, who argued the party must fight any requirement for MPs to get vaccinated before they sit in the Commons.

Mr. O’Toole has to navigate a faction of his own caucus that wants to refuse to get vaccinated and a broader public that doesn’t have much patience for that stand.

Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals made an election issue out of Mr. O’Toole’s refusal to insist that all his candidates be vaccinated. And it won’t take long after Parliament resumes on Nov. 22 before Liberal, NDP, and Bloc Québécois MPs band together to pass a motion requiring vaccination to sit in the Commons.

The Conservatives could simply respond by insisting on a hybrid virtual Parliament so that unvaccinated MPs could take part in proceedings by video link – as MPs did that in the last session.

But that raises two problems for Conservatives. One is that the Tories always disliked the virtual sessions of the Commons, believing they took the oomph out of parliamentary debates and weakened the opposition’s hand. The other is that image of unvaccinated Conservative MPs sitting outside the Commons, and figuratively, outside the mainstream.

Eighty-one per cent of Canadians over the age of 11 have been fully vaccinated, according to federal government statistics. And as the fourth wave continues, it is pretty clear that some of the vaccinated blame those who aren’t vaccinated for putting the rest of society in danger. A survey conducted in late September by polling firm Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies found that 85 per cent of vaccinated Canadians hold negative views of unvaccinated Canadians.

There are Tory MPs who see the political problem. But it didn’t come up when the Conservatives had their first post-election caucus meeting two weeks ago, when discussion of Mr. O’Toole’s election-campaign performance, and his leadership, was in the air.

A meeting of MPs was convened to start discussions on the issue last week.

But the internal politics are tricky, too. The group of MPs who want to fight for the right to sit in the Commons unvaccinated are seen by some of their colleagues as MPs who are generally unhappy with Mr. O’Toole. Their position on vaccination isn’t about Mr. O’Toole per se, but caucus unity is already strained.

And if they don’t change their minds, it will present Mr. O’Toole with a leadership challenge. Either he can order MPs to get vaccinated, which could prove divisive in the party, or he can allow a politically damaging image of the party to be beamed onto Canadians’ TVs. The Conservatives have about a month to choose.

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