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Federal Politics

Abortion. Bitcoin. Political Orphans. That Was Some Debate

Highlights from Wednesday’s first official federal Conservative leadership joust.

Steve Burgess 12 May

Steve Burgess is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Wednesday night in Edmonton, six Conservative leadership candidates convened for the first official candidates' debate. Standing in front of some weirdly shimmering blue backgrounds, they battled each other and, at times, the convoluted format. Ultimately, the event proved something of a damp squib.

Any six-candidate debate stands in danger of sliding into squabbling incoherence and organizers created a web of rules intended to help moderator Tom Clark keep proceedings on the rails. The result was often confusion for both candidates and audience. But despite an overall tone that was strangely subdued, there were still revealing moments.

Although this was the first official debate, five of the candidates had taken part in an unofficial Ottawa debate last week. That event (which did not include former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown) had proved illuminating if not always edifying. “Yesterday's debate was embarrassing for our party,” participant Scott Aitchison said afterward. “The fighting, yelling and screaming, the partisan cheap shots at fellow Conservatives — we will never win another election if this is how we talk to each other and Canadians.”

This time the goal was clearly a more civilized exchange. Clark played hall monitor with mixed results. Early on the organizers had requested no booing. Shortly afterward Clark mentioned the event was being broadcast on CBC. There was booing.

In the Ottawa debate candidates had staked out their positions — Jean Charest the moderate voice of reason, Aitchison the bastion of civility, Poilievre the populist firebrand, Leslyn Lewis the righter-than-thou ideologue, Roman Baber the guy who possibly sneaked in with a fake ID.

It also established that, at least in that room, there was not much ground to be gained supporting the rule of law. When Charest argued that one cannot support the illegal actions of the recent truckers' convoy and still represent the Government of Canada, he was booed by the Ottawa audience and contradicted by several candidates. Lewis even attacked Poilievre for being insufficiently supportive of the blockaders. It must have been a bleak reminder to Poilievre that pandering contests often become a race for the bottom.

This debate started out feeling somewhat stilted, probably a function of too-brief reply windows that did not leave room for proper replies. There followed some unusual personal questions that seemed to take candidates by surprise — gossipy queries about favourite music, TV series and books. No nasty arguments about Harry Potter ensued. Poilievre, to the surprise of no one, touted Jordan Peterson's bro bible 12 Rules for Life. Baber's answers to the puffball questions were perhaps the most interesting — he is an Amy Winehouse fan who learned English watching Married with Children.

Things eventually warmed up when the face-to-face issue debates finally began. Even here though the format snared everyone in a perplexing tangle of rules — a complicated allotment of speaking opportunities that ultimately left some candidates speechless, rather like football coaches who have used up all their referee challenges. Even Clark admitted he couldn't keep it all straight.

There were breakthroughs. Poilievre endured the most sustained beat down of the evening on his support for now-plunging cryptocurrency.

Lewis began the attack, pointing out that people who took the advice of Poilievre (or as she regularly referred to him, “Mr. Polyver”) would have lost thousands. “He is promoting a decentralized currency over his own government's currency,” Lewis said. Charest and Brown piled on, Charest calling Poilievre's stance “bizarre” and “lunacy,” while Brown called crypto “magic internet money” from “late-night YouTube videos.”

“I simply said people should be free to use Bitcoin,” Poilievre replied. He did not put up a strong defence of his cherished investment strategy. He did however promise to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.

On the abortion issue, only Lewis came out frankly as anti-abortion. Baber seemed to be advocating for a free vote, while Poilievre said he would not bring in abortion legislation. Charest attempted to jump on Poilievre as vacillating: “The women of Canada deserve to know where people stand.”

Poilievre in turn got his best shots of the night in attacking Charest's previous record. One of the odder moments came when Poilievre actually attacked Charest for voting for a bill to re-criminalize abortion in the Brian Mulroney era. “You did! You did!” Poilievre declared. “You seem to have forgotten it.” Hard-core Poilievre supporters in the crowd must have shifted uneasily in their seats at that line of attack.

Yet perhaps surprisingly considering Poilievre's attack dog reputation, it was Charest who often came off as the candidate with fire in the belly. He also seemed to be addressing his remarks above the heads of the convention centre audience to the general public beyond. “There are millions of people in this country who are... political orphans in this country,” Charest summed up. “And they are looking for a national alternative. We need to be that party.”

Brown delivered a similar message clearly aimed at the divisive rhetoric of Poilievre. “We need a leader who can defeat Justin Trudeau,” Brown said, “not just yell at him.”

Poilievre finally delivered his standard “remove the gatekeepers” line in his closing statement. Overall though, his was a low-key performance. More than any other candidate he seemed to have been put on the back foot by the restrictive format.

Next comes a French debate, May 25 in Laval, Quebec. It should be an occasion for the fully bilingual Poilievre and Charest to go, as the Spanish say, mano-a-mano.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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