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Conservatives clamp down on governing body’s dealings with reporters, social media posts

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The Conservative party is moving to restrict their national councilors’ interactions with reporters and posts on social media after a high-profile permanent suspension of one of their members.

But party president Rob Batherson said the new policy pre-dated former national councilor Bert Chen’s departure from the board, and is not meant as a veto over councilors’ communications with party members or the public.

Read more: Tories ask national councilor behind anti-O’Toole petition to turn over emails, phone records

New rules published filter all communications about the elected National Council’s business through Batherson or a designated communications director.

The first objective of the new policy, according to the document, is to “ensure councilors understand their obligations on maintaining confidentiality” while discussing council business.

The document emphasizes that the party’s president — currently Batherson, a longtime party activist — is the official spokesperson for the council, not the elected councillors.

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“In the event a National Councilor is contacted by a member of the media, (they) shall notify the president … prior to any interview taking place,” the document reads.

That applies to discussing national council business on social media platforms, as well.

“Any social media post by a national councilor related to confidential national council business must be reviewed and approved by the president or (his) designate,” the document reads.

The new policy comes after Bert Chen, a national councilor representing Conservatives in Ontario, was ousted from his position on the governing body for agitating for Erin O’Toole’s ouster.

Read more: Conservative probe into suspended national councilor is a ‘fishing expedition’, lawyer says

After last September’s disappointing election results, and while O’Toole and his inner circle sought to maintain his hold over the party, Chen and Sen. Denise Batters became the two most public faces of the behind-the-scenes movement to force a leadership review.

O’Toole removed Batters from the Conservative national caucus. His successor, interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen, invited the Saskatchewan senator back into the fold after O’Toole lost 73 of his own MPs in a caucus vote on his leadership.

Chen, however, lost his seat at the National Council table and has no plans to mount a comeback.

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In an interview with Global News, Chen agreed that the new policy appears to have been motivated by the saga. But he says that while the policy gives the party’s president a measure of control over national council communications, it also limits the power of that position to act “unilaterally.”

“Any solid organization deserves to have a policy in place, but this is directly in response to (Batherson) unilaterally declaring things of national council without consulting them first,” Chen, who is now working with leadership hopeful Leslyn Lewis’ campaign, said Monday.

But Batherson said work on the new communications protocol dates back to January 2020, and was taken up by newly-elected members again in March 2021. He told Global News in an interview that a “number of councilors” over the years had expressed concern about what is confidential information and what isn’t, and about the lack of guidelines in place around discussing council business.

Read more: Conservative Party national council suspends member who led bid to recall O’Toole

Batherson said that requiring councillors to flag media requests or social media posts to him was not a “veto” over their communications, but a “courtesy” to the rest of the board about any planned public comments.

“If you’re going to be out there speaking, (the guidelines ensure) that people know about it in advance and don’t hear about it by reading a media report,” Batherson said.

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“It’s hard to sort of envision the kind of situation where you would ask someone not to speak to something. But again, there are confidential issues that come up … So if someone were to speak about something that’s in camera, that certainly would be problematic.”

Batherson confirmed there were no explicit consequences for councilors who violated the protocols, and noted that Chen was suspended from the board prior to having official rules around media interviews and social media posts in place.

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