OTTAWA — The second official debate of the federal Conservative leadership race saw the six candidates run through a gamut of topics Wednesday night where their policies may not have been altogether different, but the politics of the race itself was on full — and sometimes heated — display.
The two-hour French language event in Laval, Que., saw two camps form within the six: bilingual front-runner Pierre Poilievre was attacked early and often by the equally bilingual Jean Charest and also by Patrick Brown, and returned fire in kind.
Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber and Leslyn Lewis largely stuck to their written notes as they tried to make their key points, and at times seemed to struggle to follow the arguments.
Here’s a look at how it went down:
Politics was personal
Charest, the former premier of Quebec, was back on home turf Wednesday and his supporters cheered loudly as he entered the venue, just as they did when he lambasted Poilievre’s support of the so-called Freedom Convoy earlier this year.
It was a marked turnaround from the boos Charest received when he first raised the issue at an unofficial debate in Ottawa at the start of the month — though there were some boos on Wednesday night as well.
In that event, and the official English-language event that followed, Poilievre had lobbed hit after hit at Charest and he didn’t let up on Wednesday.
During a section of the debate on energy policy, Poilievre accused Charest of changing his mind “so many times, he no longer even knows what party he belongs to,” a hit at Charest’s past as leader of the Quebec Liberals, which at the time was the sole federalist party in the province.
But on Wednesday, Brown was also firmly in Poilievre’s sights.
Poilievre sought to undercut Brown’s credibility, flagging a finding from Ontario’s integrity commissioner that Brown failed to disclose rental income and a mortgage loan that he got for his house.
Brown flipped it around, noting that Poilievre was also found in violation of election law (he was rapped over the knuckles for wearing a party shirt to a government announcement in 2017).
And just as Poilievre hit at Brown’s flip-flops on support for a carbon tax when he was Ontario PC leader, Brown hit back, noting Poilievre had run on support for a tax in the past.
Brown also brought up Poilievre’s support for the convoy, and the fact that one of the leaders, Pat King, espoused racist ideology. Poilievre insisted he doesn’t back King’s ideas, and accused Brown of making things up.
Brown, Charest and Lewis went after Poilievre’s support for cryptocurrency, with Charest noting Poilievre was not willing to repeat a previous promise to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.
And in his closing statements, Charest took a clear swipe at the populist tones underscoring Poilievre’s campaign, saying the party needs a leader that doesn’t support bitcoin or who speaks out against the governor of the bank, suggesting the party must ask itself whether it wants to go down the road taken by American political parties, which he characterized as being divisive, and filled with slogans, or “do politics for Canadians.”
The Quebec question(s)
The modern-day Conservative party’s best showing in Quebec was 12 seats in 2015 — the same year they lost government.
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They’re now sitting at 10 seats and increasing that total in the next election will be a key challenge for the next leader.
The debate Wednesday sought to pick up on some key issues in the province and put them to the candidates.
Among them: how they’d tackle the issue of thousands of people pouring through an unofficial border crossing known as Roxham Road to seek asylum in Canada, and the protection of the French language.
Charest was the sole candidate who addressed the issue that drives migration at Roxham Road, the current asylum deal with the U.S, and said he’d renegotiate.
Poilievre said he’s “against illegal entries, but at the same time I am for immigration,” noting his wife came to Canada as a Venezuelan refugee.
All candidates were broadly in favour of continued high levels of immigration to Canada, while also suggesting it needs to be better targeted to meet labour needs.
Another topic of evergreen discussion in Quebec is the protection of the French language, now up for renewed debate with the passage of Bill 96, which restricts the use of English in the courts and public services and imposes stronger language requirements on small business and municipalities.
Baber, Brown and Aitchison both spoke out against the bill. Aitchison called it a bad law, saying “politics of fear and anger should not prevail in the country.”
That debate also touched on Bill 21, the law that restricts individuals in certain positions of public authority from wearing religious symbols on the job.
While the bill has broad support in Quebec, it is divisive nationally and Brown has made opposition to it a centrepiece of his campaign.
In the debate, Poilievre was accused of telling Quebecers he wouldn’t intervene in a court challenge of the bill, but saying the opposite in English. He insisted Wednesday night he is against the bill.
Moderator Marc-Andre Fortin also noted the appointment of Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, who does not speak French, as well as other senior officials who only speak a single language. He asked if candidates became prime minister, whether they’d do the same.
Charest called it the “sacred duty” of elected officials to ensure the survival of the French language, and those who take on high positions must be bilingual or at least be able to communicate.
Lewis said she believes the best candidate should get the job, but commit to learning French. Hers appeared to have approved only slightly since she last ran for leader in 2020.
Will they meet again?
The party has said it reserves the right to organize another formal debate before the end of the contest.
But in the meantime, candidates now have until June 3 to sell memberships, and then the race will pivot to convincing those card holders to cast a ballot.
Party members will vote using a mail-in ballot and the winner will be declared on Sept. 10 at an event in Ottawa.
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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