The two favorites in the race for the Conservative Party’s top job traded blows over their records in the first campaign leadership debate on Thursday.
Making it clear who he thinks his main opponent is, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre used much of his speaking time to attack former Quebec premier Jean Charest, a man he called an intruder liberal who practices tax rambling.
Poilievre accused Charest of being overly critical of the anti-vaccine protest convoy that occupied much of downtown Ottawa earlier this year, saying he was proud to stand alongside truckers “law-abiding” and “peace-loving” people protesting COVID-19 restrictions.
“Charest learned about the CBC truck convoy like other Liberals and he twisted them. He thinks I should be censored, canceled from that direction,” Poilievre said, referring to Charest’s past remarks. condemning the MP’s warm embrace of protesters as disqualifying.
“I don’t share his liberal view. Truckers have more integrity in their little finger than you had in your whole scandal-ridden cabinet,” Poilievre told Charest.
Charest said Poilievre’s aggressive politics are tearing the party apart.
“I’ve been a conservative all my life,” Charest said. He said opposing the anarchy that has manifested itself in convoy protests in Ottawa, Windsor, Ont., and Coutts, Alta., doesn’t make him any less conservative.
WATCH: Charest denies Poilievre’s accusations of being a liberal
In response to the accusation that he is a closet liberal, Charest offered a defense of fiscal conservatism and cited Quebec’s economic successes under his watch. He said he cut income taxes and championed natural resource development while leading the province — two things he promises to do federally if he goes to the premier’s office.
Poilievre attacks Charest for his ties to Huawei
Charest said he was best placed to lead the national Conservative movement because he fought separatists in the 1995 referendum and won three elections as federalist premier in a province sharply divided on the national question.
“I fought and won against the separatists. This guy is not going to intimidate me,” Charest said of Poilievre.
Poilievre referred to Charest’s past lobbying work with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that has been singled out by Western intelligence agencies as a spy threat.
“If we want to unite this party, we have to be clear. Mr. Charest has to be clear about how much money he got from Huawei,” Poilievre said.
Charest tried to answer but the deputy repeatedly spoke above him, asking “How much?” and “Just the number”, before moderators, lawyer Jamil Jivani and journalist Candice Malcolm, had to intervene to stop the crosstalk.
“It’s not a student council,” Charest retorted to Poilievre. “Is this the kind of country you want? Where people are not allowed to speak?
Charest never said how much money he made from the Huawei contract.
The former prime minister defended his lobbying efforts, saying the previous Conservative government welcomed Huawei to Canada to help develop the country’s 5G cellular network.
He also said he worked with the Canadian government to help secure the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadians held captive by China for three years.
“If you want proof of that, ask Michael Kovrig’s wife,” he said. (Kovrig’s former wife, Vina Nadjibulla, said she was grateful for Charest’s efforts to help free her ex-partner.)
Charest says he’s the best candidate to take on Trudeau
Charest presented himself as the candidate best positioned to lead the party to victory in crucial battlegrounds like the Greater Toronto Area, Vancouver’s Lower Mainland and Quebec, regions where he said his brand of conservatism would resonate. Charest said that of all the candidates on stage, he had the best shot at unseating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the upcoming federal election.
“If you’re tired of losing in the campaigns and you’re tired of handing over power to Trudeau, then you want a leader who will unite the party and elect a national Conservative government,” Charest said, suggesting Poilievre has more. openly reason-wing approach to politics could be a liability for the party in a general election.
WATCH: ‘Just the dollar figure please’: Poilievre goads Charest
Poilievre presented himself as the hope of leadership who is staunchly conservative, a candidate unafraid to stand up to liberals, mainstream media and leftists, groups he says are intent on silence the conservatives.
He said he wanted to end “authoritarian government”, reduce vaccination mandates, fight inflation through spending cuts, rein in the Bank of Canada and defund the CBC.
Poilievre said his top priorities were to cut taxes, fight inflation and “empower the working class.”
“I’m running for prime minister to give you back control of your life by making Canada the freest country in the world,” he said.
Poilievre, Lewis bicker over truckers, abortion
As Poilievre sought to portray himself as the champion of anti-mandatory campaigners, another contender in that race, Tory MP Leslyn Lewis, said Poilievre only backed the cause when it became a “popular” thing in To do.
Lewis said Poilievre said nothing about COVID-19 measures such as lockdowns and curfews in the House of Commons during the early stages of the pandemic or on the campaign trail when he was re-elected last fall. .
“You didn’t speak until it was convenient,” she said. “You didn’t speak for the truckers and you didn’t speak the loudest.”
Ontario Independent MPP Roman Baber, who was kicked out of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative caucus last year over his opposition to public health measures, said he was the only candidate to having vehemently opposed COVID restrictions from the start of this health crisis.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of the media or the left-wing crowd on Twitter. We have to do good for Canadians. We did not stand up for Canadians. The Conservative Party did not defend them against lockdowns, passports and warrants. . I am in a unique position to speak to these voters,” Baber said.
Baber, an immigrant born and raised in the former Soviet Union, said he feared Canada would become a communist country like the one his family left in the 1990s.
He said that under Trudeau the CBC is like Pravda, the former state newspaper published by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. “I am determined to restore democracy to Canada,” he said.
WATCH: Who defended the Freedom Convoy?
Lewis, who is a social-conservative candidate in this race, chastised Poilievre for his ambiguity on the issue of abortion, a topic that has become more prominent in recent days as the US Supreme Court appears poised. to reverse a historic decision.
“He’s been on the run from the media for the past few days. He doesn’t want to state where he stands,” Lewis said, referring to the Poilievre campaign’s relative silence on the issue following reports that the highest US court would overturn the Roe. vs. Wade decision.
“Is he pro-choice or pro-life? As a leader, we’ll have to declare that. The media will harass him. He’s going to address conservative social issues, which he’s led this whole campaign.”
Although pressed by Lewis, Poilievre did not say where he stood on the issue of abortion on the debate stage.
Aitchison presents himself as a unifier of the party
Conservative MP Scott Aitchison, a former mayor of Huntsville, Ont., presented himself as a unifier, a candidate more focused on rallying a fractured party than on name-calling and petty bickering with his fellow candidates.
“Politics is increasingly divided and we have stopped respecting those we disagree with,” he said.
“Until we can work together as a team, Canadians won’t trust us. Here, we’re insulting each other. Which Canadian is going to trust this group? We have to do better.”
Aitchison said the Conservative Party must be reasonable and its leaders must stop peddling ‘conspiracy theories’, an apparent reference to Lewis, who has raised red flags about the World Economic Forum and the role of the World Organization health in the pandemic.
“We don’t want to scare voters. Every time I hear another conspiracy theory, I think, ‘Well, there’s another group of swing voters in the GTA who aren’t going to meet us.'”
Aitchison said some COVID restrictions were necessary, but he criticized the federal government’s approach to health care. He said if elected, he would increase Ottawa’s share of health care spending to increase hospital capacity and avoid a repeat of pandemic-related shutdowns.
He also said he disagrees with the other candidates when they say they want to “burn Radio-Canada”.
He said the public broadcaster tells important Canadian stories and brings the country together, but needs to be “refocused and reined in.”
The Canada Strong and Free Network, the host of Thursday’s debate, has extended invitations to all six “verified” party candidates.
All but Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown were on stage tonight. Brown declined to attend the event.