Canada’s first Conservative leadership debate in one word: nasty

A longtime party operative called Thursday’s showdown at downtown Ottawa’s Shaw Center, organized in conjunction with the Canada Strong and Free Network (CSFN) conference, the most intense leadership debate it has ever witnessed.

Five candidates participated: Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber, Jean Charest, Leslyn Lewis and Pierre Poilievre. A sixth candidate, Patrick Brown, spent the afternoon campaigning on the East Coast. His campaign tells POLITICO that he will attend the party’s two official debates later this month.

Early in the debate, several candidates simultaneously demanded rebuttals of each other’s claims. One of the moderators, the incoming CSFN president, Jamil Jivani, invited them to discuss it. “If you want to mix it up, let’s go,” he said.

And they do it like that.

The two main combatants of the night were Poilievre, a parliamentarian representing an Ottawa jockey who is the perceived favourite, and Charest, a former Quebec premier.

Their campaigns have criticized each other on social media for months. Finally, standing side by side on stage, the two men got a chance to air their grievances in front of a live audience of conservatives.

Here are five takeaways from the debate that offer clues as to where the race could go next. There is less than a month to go until June 3, the deadline for recruiting party members who can vote. The winner will be announced on September 10.

Findings 1: Everyone agrees the Conservatives weren’t conservative enough during the last election campaign

The candidates were unanimous on precisely one point: Former party leader Erin O’Toole’s 2021 election platform failed to deliver a coherent conservative vision.

Aitchison, a parliamentarian from rural Ontario, acknowledged that O’Toole’s argument lacked consistency, a likely nod to O’Toole’s reversal of a key gun control policy. Charest and Lewis, an MP from the same province, insisted that the party needed to return to its fundamental principles. Baber, a member of the Ontario legislature, complained that many Canadians “weren’t sure where we were.”

Poilievre, who also represents a horse from Ontario, glossed over O’Toole’s failings to focus on his own strengths. He boasted of having won seven consecutive elections in a “great multicultural city” — suburban Ottawa, as well as outlying rural areas — crediting his “impeccable record” as a low-tax, low-inflation candidate.

Takeaway 2: Leslyn Lewis has her guns trained on Pierre Poilievre

Lewis is the only social conservative champion in this race, and her opponents know those supporters will influence the outcome of the race. They barely mentioned her name, much less criticized her proposals.

If you drop the ballot, those votes will be up for grabs on the party’s ranked ballot.

But Lewis was not a peacemaker on Thursday. She challenged Poilievre’s support of the Freedom Convoy. “You weren’t one of the loudest voices,” she said. “You did not speak until it was convenient for you to speak.”

Poilievre denied the charge, stating that he always supported legal protests and opposed criminal activity by nefarious elements of the protracted protests in downtown Ottawa.

Lewis also questioned the bona fides of the favorite’s social conservative. “Pierre Poilievre has fled from the media in recent days because he doesn’t want to declare whether she is pro-life or pro-choice,” she said. “As a leader, he will have to declare that.”

In a brief statement sent to POLITICO, Poilievre’s camp pledged never to legislate against abortion, a position identical to that of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his nine years in power.

The Lewis camp has always claimed that its support base extends beyond social conservatives to the same freedom-loving party members who attend Poilievre rallies across Canada. Expect her to keep her guns trained on her caucus colleague.

Takeaways 3: Poilievre’s signature attack works wonders

Anyone who has seen Poilievre in a parliamentary committee recognizes his bulldog tactics. He pelts the witnesses with simple questions until they respond or the president adjourns the meeting.

Poilievre used the same technique on Thursday, demanding to know how much Chinese telecoms giant Huawei had paid Charest for his consulting services. “How much? How much does it cost? How much?” Charest refused to answer.

The former prime minister’s work for Huawei, which coincided with CFO Meng Wanzhou’s house arrest as she fought possible extradition to the United States, has haunted him throughout the campaign. He claims to have played a role in brokering the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians who were arrested shortly after Wanzhou and held behind bars until their release last September.

Charest, an experienced polemicist after a lifetime in politics, never backed down from Poilievre.

But he walked into another trap. It is a truism in politics that candidates should not repeat the substance of their opponents’ attacks. Poilievre has for months described Charest as a liberal prime minister who never governed as a conservative.

The former prime minister calmly posed a question to the room. “Can I take a moment to put an end to this accusation of being liberal? Please bear with me, bear with me.”

To his left, Poilievre smiled. “It’s not his name as a party that was Liberal,” he said. “It’s their history of more debt, higher taxes and a more expensive government that was liberal.” Point to Poilievre.

Findings 4: The Freedom Convoy was a popular cause

Aitchison’s game plan is clear. He will emphasize unity, teamwork, dialogue and empathy, imploring his fellow debaters to be reasonable.

“All we do is yell at each other,” he said after a heated exchange between Poilievre and Charest. “What Canadian is going to trust this batch?”

Most of those calls for sanity drew applause, but they were rarely enthusiastic. Candidates were more vocally rewarded when they went for the jugular.

It could have been a room full of white-collar conservatives, but they vociferously supported the Freedom Convoy. Many cheered anyone who opposed the closures.

At one point, Charest spun Poilievre’s defense of the Liberty Convoy as support for the illegal protests. That comment was met with the only sustained round of boos of the night.

Takeaway 5: No matter the room, candidates are looking for clips

Charest dealt Poilievre a swipe with Bill 21, the Quebec law that prohibits public servants, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols at work. Charest accused Poilievre of telling an interviewer in French that he would not intervene if a legal challenge to the law reached the Supreme Court.

Poilievre said he opposed the law, but did not directly deny Charest’s claim. The conference attendees in the room seemed less than enthusiastic about that exchange, but Charest wasn’t playing games with them: his target audience was across the river in Quebec.

Next stop: The five candidates, along with Brown, will meet on May 11 in Edmonton for the party’s first “official” debate. Tom Clark, former journalist, will act as moderator.

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