Conservative leadership hopefuls held a tamer but occasionally circus-sounding debate that covered topics from abortion to their favourite music, with format and moderator criticized for stifling candidates’ answers.
It was the first time all six leadership contenders — Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber, Patrick Brown, Jean Charest, Leslyn Lewis and Pierre Poilievre — faced off in the first of two official debates organized by the Conservative Party of Canada.
Wednesday night’s event was held in Edmonton, Alt., and moderated by former veteran political journalist Tom Clark. Some of the themes tackled by the debate were: the future of the Party, the future of energy, Canada’s North, environment and climate change, cost of living, and law and order.
The debate also feature a major new policy announcement by Poilievre: that he would replace current Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem if elected prime minister.
“The Bank of Canada governor has allowed himself to become the ATM machine of this government. And so, I would replace him with a new governor who would reinstate our low inflation mandate,” Poilievre said.
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Despite occasionally testy exchanges namely between Charest, Poilievre and Lewis, the moderator also occasionally stole the show, namely by using a “womp womp” sad trombone sound any time a candidate broke any of his numerous rules or posing personal questions to candidates that had little to nothing to do with current-affairs issues.
Clark also repeatedly warned audience members not to clap in between answers, at one point removing speaking time from Poilievre because his supporters booed Charest early in the exchanges.
Many watching online noted their disdain for the format and moderator.
“This is a tremendously horrible debate format, maybe the worst I’ve ever seen. No one wants to hear these little mini-speeches with the moderator interrupting and lecturing the candidates. I can barely comprehend the topic they’re on before they move on,” wrote Royce Koop, professor and Canadian politics expert at University of Manitoba, on social media close to midway through the debate.
Though the first half of the debate was mostly tame, the second half and the “face-to-face” segment between candidates offered testier exchanges reminiscent of the unofficial debate in Ottawa last week.
Considered the front-runner in the race, Poilievre was regularly the target of focused fire the other candidates throughout the evening, particularly from Charest and Brown. Most of his responses were directed at Charest.
Aitchison mostly shied away from criticism in his responses, repeating his message from last week calling for unity within the party and less internal attacks.
Charest notably went after Poilievre’s criticism of the Bank of Canada, calling it “irresponsible” to say it was “financially illiterate” and to say right off the bat that he would fire Governor Tiff Macklem if he were to become prime minister in order to control inflation.
I know it was a weird little journey to go on, but I think it was interesting
Poilievre repeated his claim that Charest’s political record is that of a “Liberal”, not a Conservative.
Brown and Poilievre also traded shots on the carbon tax, accusing each other of having supported at one point or another a price on carbon.
Poilievre accused Brown once more of having “flip-flopped” on the issue when he was leader of the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario, but he was met with a reminder that he had run on former Erin O’Toole’s platform commitment to introduce another form of carbon pricing.
During a first yes-and-no round of questions that allowed leaders just seconds to respond, all leaders agreed that Canada should not push for a no fly-zone above Ukraine as requested by President Volodymyr Zelensky.
They also all mostly agreed their government would meet Canada’s pledge of upping defence spending to meet NATO’s 2 per cent requirement. Only Poilievre promised to “work towards that goal.”
But their opinions diverged when asked if they believed in Canada’s supply management system. Baber, Aitchison said no, whereas Charest, Brown, Poilievre and Lewis said yes.
Then on the issue of abortion, Charest, Aitchison, Brown and Baber said they were pro-choice. On the other hand, Lewis said she was “pro-life”, while Poilievre only promised that his government “would not introduce or pass legislation restricting abortions.”
Charest came after Poilievre on more than one occasion to clarify his position on abortion, but was reminded that he was part of Brian’s Mulroney government when it considered recriminalizing certain aspects of abortion for women more than three ago.
“You can take a moment now to renounce your earlier vote, if you change your mind, but that was your position. You seem to have forgotten it,” said Poilievre.
Charest chuckled as he responded, “thank you Pierre Poilievre for at least now telling us that you are pro-choice.”
When asked which is the single biggest threat to Canada today, Brown and Poilievre seemed to agree that it was the nation’s finances. Lewis and Baber talked about the erosion of democracy, while Aitchison mentioned the divisive rhetoric he has been denouncing since the start of the race. Charest said national unity was Canada’s biggest challenge.
Later, the moderator diverged from policy issues to pose candidates a series of personal questions which seemingly caught the candidates by surprise, such as what book they are currently reading, their favourite music or what show they had last binge-watched.
“I know it was a weird little journey to go on, but I think it was interesting,” Clark said at the end of the segment.
The debate became testier during the face-off round in which candidates could choose who they would debate on a set topic. Other candidates could also butt in up to five times by raising a prop paddle.
Poilievre took advantage of a first question on what he considered to be an unlawful protest in light of the Freedom Convoy protests to attack the moderator and his question.
“I don’t know why that doesn’t seem to be a trouble to you or the rest of the national media, because you’re more concerned about truckers who lost their jobs because of an unfair vaccine mandate imposed on them by Prime Minister, who was targeting them without any scientific basis, that you were about holding accountable people who’ve actually done violence,” he said.
The first real shots were fired in the second hour of the debate, starting when all candidates took group shots at Poilievre for his support for cryptocurrencies and his statement that he’d allow Canadians to “opt out of inflation” via digital currencies.
“The last thing we should be doing is encouraging our parents and grandparents, along with vulnerable families, to gamble their savings, their retirements in something this risky,” mentioned Brown, who accused Poilievre of “watching late night YouTube videos” and pushing “magic Internet money”.
Poilievre shot back, “Mr. Brown that’s not what I said; you’re misleading the public,” shot back Poilievre.
Baber then tried to change the topic, noting that, “you have a bunch of politicians here, career politicians, giving people investment advice… enough!”
All candidates also agreed that Canada needs to build more oil and gas pipelines and increase natural resource exploitation, with Aitchison jokingly saying that if he is elected prime minister, he would name Poilievre as natural resources minister to get rid of the “gatekeepers.” He also later joked that he would name Charest as environment minister.
“I’m making my cabinet right here as we go,” he said, earning a laugh from the crowd and his opponents.