Three of the five candidates vying to become the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada took part in the race’s final debate Wednesday evening in Ottawa in what proved to be a courteous, sparks-free affair — aside from the barbs aimed at those not in attendance.
The bilingual event, with the first half taking part in English, came just over one month from when the party will select its third permanent leader in five years on Sept. 10.
Jean Charest, the former Quebec premier and one of only three candidates who took part in the debate, chided the presumed frontrunner, MP Pierre Poilievre, and another candidate, MP Leslyn Lewis, for not participating.
Charest likened the decision to “a fish that says it doesn’t want to swim in the ocean” and thanked Conservative MP Scott Aitchison and former Ontario MPP Roman Baber for showing up on Wednesday.
“I’ve accepted every invitation for debates and for panels,” Charest said. “This is fundamental to our responsibility to the party.”
WATCH | Charest calls out Poilievre for skipping final debate:
Charest’s campaign team extended its criticism of Poilievre on Twitter:
Now, let’s hear introductory remarks from Pierre: <a href=”https://t.co/AbCCF3u0Wy”>https://t.co/AbCCF3u0Wy</a><a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/cdnpoli?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#cdnpoli</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/cpcldr?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#cpcldr</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/cpcdebate?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#cpcdebate</a>
Poilievre, speaking from a meet-and-greet with voters in Regina, shot back.
“Instead of being here with all of you in Saskatchewan, I could have been cooped up in a little hotel room around a small table listening to a defeated Liberal premier drone on about his latest carbon tax idea,” Poilievre said.
The party confirmed Wednesday it has already received roughly 150,000 ballots from a voter list with more than 670,000 names. The number of party members is more than double the size it was when Erin O’Toole was chosen to lead the Conservatives in 2020.
WATCH | The debate in full:
ArriveCan app comes under fire
The federal government’s ArriveCan app, which requires travellers to pre-register before entering Canada for non-essential travel, came up early in the debate, during a discussion of long wait times at airports.
In June, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the much-criticized app could help speed up border bottlenecks and may have uses beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I will not allow Canada to turn into a surveillance state,” Baber said.
WATCH | Candidates talk airport issues and ArriveCan app:
Charest said a Conservative government led by him would scrap the app on its first day in office.
“We should do away with it,” Charest said. “There’s enough bureaucracy. We don’t need to layer it on.”
Aitchison, while acknowledging passengers’ recent airport “horror stories,” said the federal government should also focus on people’s upward “social mobility.”
“Canadians can’t dream of taking a flight anywhere because they don’t have a warm bed to sleep in at night,” Aitchison said.
Both Baber and Aitchison said the airport delays and the recent Canada-wide Rogers outage show the need for more competition in those industries.
The need for party unity was another theme running throughout the debate.
But Charest dodged questions about whether he would remain in the party and support Poilievre if he loses the leadership bid.
“There’s only one scenario possible. I will become the leader of the party,” Charest said in a post-debate scrum.
WATCH | Charest on his future plans if he loses leadership bid:
Climate change talk
In a section of debate focused on the environment, candidates were asked how to balance the goal of reaching net-zero emissions with the party’s stated opposition to the federal government’s carbon tax.
Aitchison accused the Trudeau government of attacking the energy sector and said, if elected, he would push for a plan to help combat the effects of extreme weather events on infrastructure. He said his plan includes “making the biggest polluters pay” and phasing out coal-generated power.
Charest said a government led by him would scrap the carbon tax and focus on carbon capture and storage technologies, hydrogen, biofuels and small modular reactors.
Baber said he would not be afraid to take on the “radical left-wing environmental mob” and said Canada’s share of emissions is small compared to other countries.
WATCH | Candidates talk carbon tax alternatives:
Poilievre, Lewis meet with supporters during debate
Poilievre and Lewis hosted meet-and-greets with supporters at the same time as Wednesday’s debate, in Regina and Cornwall, P.E.I., respectively.
Poilievre’s team previously signalled he would not take part in the debate because they felt the first debate back in May was “an embarrassment” and he wants instead to shore up voter support.
Lewis previously said she had received no information about the debate format and that she had told the party she would not be available on the date set for the event.
Lewis spoke at her Wednesday night event about the need for a federal parental rights bill.
Under party rules, candidates must attend official party debates or face a $50,000 fine.
The party’s Leadership Election Organizing Committee said it decided to hold a third debate after finding that a majority of surveyed members supported the move.