Conservative leadership candidates took the stage Wednesday in Edmonton for what turned into an unorthodox, wide-ranging debate that featured discussions about the war in Ukraine, abortion, and supply management — with detours on the topics of binge-worthy TV shows and the candidates’ current reading lists.
Debate moderator Tom Clark, a veteran political journalist, promised a debate heavy on policy issues and free of interruptions, which was largely the case for the bulk of the debate.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the perceived front-runner in the contest to replace Erin O’Toole, focused most of his speaking time on economic issues, the cost of living, and surging inflation figures.
As prime minister, Poilievre said he would replace Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem, who he accused of acting as the federal government’s “ATM,” which has driven inflation and made life unaffordable for many Canadians.
“People feel like they’ve lost control of their lives,” Poilievre said. He repeated his campaign pitch to “fire gatekeepers” responsible for cumbersome bureaucracy and to make Canada the “freest nation on Earth.”
Poilievre was frequently targeted by fellow candidates on stage, notably former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, who is considered by Tory insiders as Poilievre’s top competitors to become party leader.
Charest said Poilievre’s promise to fire Macklem was “irresponsible” and would make companies second-guess their investments in Canada.
After the debate, Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis said: “I don’t agree that members of Parliament should be meddling in the Bank of Canada.”
Candidates generally agreed on the need to bolster Canada’s energy and resources sector by building more pipelines.
Charest and Brown lob attacks at Poilievre
On the candidates’ support for the freedom convoy protests, Charest accused Poilievre of simultaneously denouncing illegal blockades while more broadly supporting protests against pandemic restrictions and vaccine mandates.
“Mr. Poilieivre is very conveniently rewriting history tonight. The fact of the matter is that he did support illegal blockades,” Charest said.
In a section on cryptocurrency and its potential role in helping Canadians weather the effects of inflation, Brown accused Poilievre of misleading Canadians through “late-night YouTube videos” in which he championed the benefits of cryptocurrencies.
Poilievre, for his part, attacked Charest as a phony Conservative with a long track record of raising taxes and painted Brown as a politically motivated operator who has changed positions on numerous issues during his career in federal and provincial politics.
Early in the debate, candidates were each asked to provide their position on a range of hot-button topics but had little time to debate each other directly due to the strict time constraints on answers.
In a question on the war in Ukraine, all candidates except Brown said they would oppose the establishment of a no-fly zone over the country, which the Ukrainian government has repeatedly asked for.
On abortion, all candidates except Lewis indicated either said they are pro-choice or that they would not introduce legislation on abortion as prime minister. Charest jumped on Poilievre after the Ontario MP did not definitively describe himself as pro-choice.
“On this issue can we be clear on one thing? Every candidate in this race needs to tell the women of Canada where they stand, whether they’re pro or against,” Charest said. “And Mr. Poilievre’s answer quite frankly does not fit that test.”
Ontario MP Scott Aitchison, as he did in last week’s unofficial debate, appealed to voters as a reasonable, calm potential leader and promised to end the “politics of division.
“If we offer a principled, consistent message to Canadians we can form the next government,” he said in his closing remarks.
Lewis said she would build bridges and repair the distrust in Canadian politics. She also railed against “woke-ism and cancel culture.”
Former Ontario MPP Roman Baber focused his pitch to party members on his credentials as a voice against vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions, a position that caused his removal from Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative caucus. He said Canada must “end 21st-century segregation and let people make their own medical decisions.”
While the debate mostly focused on policy issues, the candidates were also asked during a section of lightning round questioning about lighter topics, including about their political heroes, the most recent TV shows they’ve binged, and the books they’re currently reading.
Poilievre said he’s reading the book 12 Rules for Life by the Canadian writer and psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has generated controversy with his hardline stances against identity politics and gender issues.
“I think he has a lot of good wisdom in that book that could help anybody,” Poilievre said.
Candidates will meet again on May 25 in Montreal for a French-language debate before resuming campaigns that will run for nearly the entire summer.
No further official debates are scheduled, although the party says it is reserving the right to organize the third debate in late August.
Conservative members will vote for their third permanent leader of the past five years at a convention on Sept. 10.