The six candidates for the Conservative leadership squared off in Edmonton Wednesday night in a debate that showcased their differing visions for the future of the party, and also what they’re currently watching on Netflix.
After a fractious unofficial debate in Ottawa last week, the Conservative party used the leadership contest’s single English-language debate to try and highlight the candidates’ lighter side — including questions about what music they listen to, what they’re currently reading, and the last thing they “binge watched.”
If a candidate referenced a rival during the debate’s early rounds, the party piped a “sad trombone” sound effect through the room and moved on.
But despite the gimmicks and an unconventional line of questioning, the candidates — who aspire to lead a G7 nation — also found time to highlight their divergent perspectives on what the Conservatives need to do to regain power after three straight general election losses.
“This is the key question,” said Jean Charest, the former Quebec premier who once led the federal Progressive Conservative party.
“Everyone knows that the Trudeau government needs to get out of office and they’re looking to the Conservative Party of Canada as the national alternative. And the question they’re asking themselves is this: are you up to the task?”
“We need to unite the party around freedom,” said Pierre Poilievre, the Carleton MP and perceived frontrunner in the campaign.
“When we unite the party along that consistent principle of freedom, then we bring all the various parts of our party together and we electrify and excite a new generation of young people that I’ve been bringing into the coalition so that we can form the next government and beat Justin Trudeau.”
While Poilievre has used “freedom” as his catch-all rallying cry, he made it evident that he does not believe the Bank of Canada should be free to set monetary policy without government interference.
Poilievre, who has pushed cryptocurrency and blamed the independent Bank of Canada for driving up inflation, said he would fire the bank’s governor if elected prime minister. The bank’s governor typically serves a seven-year term.
The Bank of Canada sets the country’s monetary policy, setting benchmark interest rates, while the government of the day decides on the country’s fiscal policy. The suggestion Poilievre would fire a Bank of Canada governor over a disagreement on monetary policy drew fire from Charest.
“If you’re an investor looking at coming to Canada and you hear that kind of statement coming from a member of the House of Commons, you’d think you’re in a third-world country,” Charest charged.
“We cannot afford to have any leader who goes out there and deliberately undermines the confidence in institutions. Conservatives do not do that.”
The Edmonton debate was the first and only time all six approved leadership contestants will appear on the same stage for an English-language debate.
Last week, Patrick Brown skipped an unofficial debate to conservative movement faithful at the Canada Strong and Free networking conference in Ottawa. The event, formerly known as the Manning Centre conference, drew young rank-and-file Tories from across the country.
Some wags suggested Brown won the fractious debate by failing to show up. The debate — which featured Poilievre accusing Charest of being a closet liberal, which amounts to a slur in conservative circles — foregrounded the fractures within the party and the stakes of this leadership contest.
Brown’s participation Wednesday did not significantly change the dynamic, with Poilievre and Charest attempting to tear each other down, Leslyn Lewis and Roman Baber competing for the anti-lockdown crowd, and Scott Aitchison appealing for moderation and unity.
Poilievre is widely considered the frontrunner in the Conservatives’ leadership race. But of the three previous leadership contests the modern iteration of the party has held, only one — the 2004 leadership that selected Stephen Harper to lead the party — has seen the early frontrunner assume the top job.
The Carleton MP and former cabinet minister is expected to spend the rest of the race with a target painted on his back — with Charest and Brown arguing he’s unpalatable to the wider Canadian electorate, and Lewis suggesting he’s insufficiently committed to the Conservative base.
Aitchison has positioned himself as the voice of moderation in the contest. On Wednesday night, as with last week’s debate, it was difficult for him to get a word in edgewise.
The Conservative leadership candidates are scheduled to meet in Laval, Que., for a French language debate on May 25. They have until June 3 to sign up new members to support their bid, before hitting the summer barbecue circuit ahead of the Sept. 10 vote.