Twenty minutes into Thursday’s debate between five of the Conservative Party’s six leadership candidates, Scott Aitchison called for calm and seriousness.
“If we can’t go out and talk to Canadians in every part of the country and make sure we’re trustworthy, that we don’t scare them away…every time I hear a Conservative talk about a conspiracy theory , I realize that there is another group of swing voters in the [Greater Toronto Area] that just won’t happen to us,” Aitchison said.
“Because all we do is scream and scream one after the other. We are witnessing that now.”
Aitchison, a little-known backbencher, is trying to carve out a place for himself as a reasonable candidate. Although he is very unlikely to win this race, he could come out of it after building up his personal brand.
And if the Conservative Party loses another federal election in 2025, it may be able to say it tried to warn its fellow supporters.
But conservatives just might not be interested in being calm and measured right now. That would at least explain the scene Thursday when the five candidates staged what was probably the most aggressive intra-party debate in recent memory.
A debate turned into a fight
It was Pierre Poilievre who set the tone for this leadership campaign with his early decision to throw rhetorical bombs at Jean Charest and Patrick Brown. But it was Charest who fired the first shot Thursday night with an attack on the Conservative Party’s 2015 promise to establish a whistleblower line for “barbaric cultural practices” – something that Charest said was still costing people money. party votes in 2021.
Charest did not participate in the Conservative campaign in 2015, of course. But Poilievre was.
A moment later, Leslyn Lewis moved to accuse Poilievre of insufficiently supporting the trucking convoy that besieged Ottawa in February and inspired border crossing blockades in other parts of the country. Poilievre quibbled with Lewis’s account, then pivoted to attack Charest’s argument that Poilievre had supported the convoy too much.
WATCH: Conservative leadership candidates trade blows over convoy protests
Poilievre then accused Charest of leading a scandal-ridden government in Quebec. Lewis said the other candidates — particularly Poilievre — refused to be clear about their positions on abortion. Charest blamed Poilievre for ignoring Preston Manning’s call on candidates to avoid personal attacks.
Poilievre and Charest argued over the latter’s record as prime minister, then Poilievre demanded to know how much Charest had been paid by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. When Poilievre kept interrupting Charest (“How much? How much?”) Charest fired back – “We’re not on student council, Pierre.”
WATCH: Poilievre goads Charest on Huawei
Charest went on to point out that Poilievre declined to say whether a federal government led by him would intervene against Quebec’s Bill 21 if a legal challenge to the law reached the Supreme Court.
Patrick Brown, who was not present, ended up being criticized by both Poilievre and one of the debate moderators.
Parties used to avoid internal conflicts
It was in the midst of it all that Aitchison issued his plea for calm – which apparently offended Lewis.
“When you talk about conspiracy theories, there were a lot of quote-unquote conspiracy theories that came true. And the liberals actually used that to divide us. So I’m really surprised you’re here saying that we should unite as you’re calling your Tory colleagues conspiracy theorists,” said Lewis, who wrote an op-ed for the National Post in October 2020 that claimed a “socialist coup” was underway. .
WATCH: Charest denies Poilievre’s claim he’s not a true Tory
Conventional wisdom in Canadian politics – at least since the Liberal leadership race in 2006 – says that leadership candidates should tone down their public criticism of each other. A Conservative attack ad that used a clip of a debate exchange between Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion showed how such disagreements could end up being used against a party.
But Poilievre has always embraced political conflict as a virtue. If so, it’s probably an implicit part of his campaign’s argument – that if you’re a Conservative Party member, you can look at what Poilievre is doing to Charest and imagine what he would do to Justin Trudeau.
The Conservatives have now lost three elections to Trudeau, a prime minister for whom they have particular animosity. Their latest failed leader promised to be a “true blue” Tory, then overturned a decade of partisan orthodoxy by acknowledging that putting a price on carbon is an effective way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
And it’s also been two long years – for everyone – of living with a pandemic.
Conservatives aren’t just mad at each other
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that they’re feeling a little restless – a feeling that extends to targets beyond the current leadership race.
There’s Justin Trudeau, taxes and government regulations, of course. But candidates like Poilievre, Lewis and Baber last night pointed to other threats and alleged sources of discontent: vaccination mandates, public health restrictions, “cancel culture”, “wake-up calls”, ” censorship”, the “elites”, the “liberal media” and the CBC. Not to be outdone, moderators also lamented the effects of “legacy media” and “ivory tower commentary.”
Against this list were the things the candidates claimed to like, such as conservative principles, consistency, and “freedom.” The phrase “climate change” didn’t come across during the debate, but there was a lot of enthusiasm for increasing oil and gas production and building pipelines.
If the Canadian public feels angry in 2025, the Conservative Party may find itself in a good position to express those feelings.
That’s assuming the Tories are still able to support themselves once this race is over, of course.
At the start of Thursday’s debate and then at its conclusion, Charest notably avoided shaking hands with Poilievre — a reminder, perhaps, that sometimes people take these things personally.