Provided one final opportunity to publicly address the entirety of the Conservative party membership, Jean Charest wanted to make clear that he was at least physically present.
“You have to show up. You have to actually show up,” he said, seated around a small table with two of his fellow candidates for Wednesday’s third official Conservative leadership debate in Ottawa. “You have to speak to the membership. You can’t treat them with contempt.”
Later he added that “leadership is about showing up… in all circumstances.”
Charest didn’t use Pierre Poilievre’s name, but he didn’t need to — because Poilievre (along with Leslyn Lewis) was noticeably not there.
Without the presumptive front-runner — and all available metrics suggest Poilievre could have an overwhelming lead — there couldn’t be much of a debate. So Wednesday night’s event seemed mostly a chance for the other candidates to offer a few parting words before the party apparatus is likely handed over to Poilievre.
Whatever Charest’s protests, Poilievre’s absence seems like a logical extension of his anti-establishment politics. Poilievre is hardly the first front-runner to not want to expose himself to unnecessary risk in a confrontational debate.
But he didn’t just skip the debate — his campaign criticized the party for even trying to hold a third official debate and publicly lambasted party organizers for how one of the previous debates was staged.
Then, last night, Poilievre appeared at his own event in Regina and mocked the candidates who did take part in the debate.
Many Conservatives have no doubt delighted in watching Poilievre hurl rhetorical bombs in other directions over the last several months (and years), but Poilievre operates on the internal logic that you’re either with him or against him — and other Conservatives clearly shouldn’t assume they’re immune from being placed in the latter group.
Worries about anger and division
Scott Aitchison, the Conservative backbencher who has pitched himself as the even-tempered and reasonable candidate in the leadership race, made noises again on Wednesday night about the tone and direction of the party.
“Our answer to Justin Trudeau’s divisive politics cannot be more division. We must lead with respect,” he said. “We have to offer real solutions to the challenges Canadians face every day and produce a government that actually delivers results. We can’t be the party that just rails against government — we have to be the party that offers better government, that actually respects taxpayer dollars and delivers results.”
Later, Aitchison said, “This leadership campaign has been divisive and in some cases embarrassing.”
If this was directed at anyone in particular, Aitchison didn’t say. But the upshot of this was merely that Conservatives have to “come together.”
“Whoever the leader is on Sept. 11, every one of us must come together,” Aitchison said.
Should Conservatives still come together if the party is not living up to Aitchison’s stated ideals? Perhaps that is a question for another day.
When it was his turn to make a closing statement, Charest summoned some of the verve that has made him a formidable voice in Canadian politics for more than 30 years, and hit on what could have been a central element of an argument against Poilievre’s candidacy.
“A lot of Canadians are … tired, they’re frustrated, some of them are angry. But anger is not a political program,” Charest said. “The challenge of real leaders who show up is to take that and to translate that into something positive for the future of the country.”
There was a similar flicker of this from Charest in the much-lamented leadership debate in May.
Nothing is over until all the votes are counted. But if Charest had run a stronger and smarter campaign to this point, he might have been in a better position to land such a closing argument. It seems unlikely that simply showing up to a third debate is going to be enough to swing the leadership race now.
As it stands, Charest will likely have to content himself with the possibility of being able to say “I told you so” if Poilievre’s leadership of the Conservative party ends in tears.