OTTAWA — An event that will educate, energize and engage.
That’s what the Conservative party says its goals are for Wednesday night’s leadership debate, the first of two official opportunities for the six candidates in the race to present their visions for the party and the country — and try to take down their opponents, too.
Five of the six candidates have done so already, at a raucous event last Thursday evening hosted by the Canada Strong and Free conference.
But Wednesday’s event will be different. Here are three things to watch for.
Will they pick up where they left off?
Neither observers nor candidates had quite expected how last week’s debate would shake out. Jean Charest called Pierre Poilievre a liar, Poilievre called Charest corrupt. Leslyn Lewis attacked Poilievre’s “freedom” bona fides, while Scott Aitchison appeared to suggest Lewis traffics in conspiracy theories. And Roman Baber, whose reputation was built on opposing COVID-19 lockdowns, ended up being lauded for having a reasonable tone throughout.
They will bring some of that fire back to the fore on Wednesday, but they’ll have another candidate on stage this time: Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, who sat out the first debate to focus on selling memberships.
Attendance at this debate, and another next week in French, is mandatory. Candidates can be fined if they refuse to attend.
Brown’s presence will change the dynamic, and he teed up a line of attack against Poilievre in particular on Tuesday.
“Pierre Poilievre is a career politician, not an investment adviser,” he wrote in an attack on Poilievre’s economic ideas as being gleaned from watching YouTube.
“With his $185,000 salary and huge MP pension, he doesn’t have to worry about his next paycheque or how he’s going to retire. He’s already set for life. But you don’t enjoy that luxury.”
The room where it’s happening
The debate is in Edmonton, the capital city of the party’s Alberta heartland.
While their exchanges are intended for a national audience, candidates will also play to those in attendance — people fiercely loyal to the province, and also to the party.
Baber is expected to announce Wednesday that, as a Conservative prime minister, he’d phase out the equalization payment system, which sees Ottawa send federal funding to the so-called “have-not” provinces.
Equalization is a perennial political sore spot in Alberta, where people feel oil and gas revenue from their province feet too much of that bill, even as the current federal government makes long-term plans to phase out the entire industry.
“Equalization is basically redistribution and I am running against socialism in Canada,” Baber told the Star. He says he would replace the dollars set aside for equalization payments with an income-tax cut.
Lewis made a pre-debate play to the party grassroots, addressing ongoing concerns about the fact the party’s infrastructure lags behind its rivals despite the Conservatives routinely raising more money. There’s also grumbling about a lack of transparency around how funds are spent and communication between party headquarters and the riding associations.
Lewis pledged change.
“Our grassroots should never again feel disconnected from the people running our party,” she wrote to supporters.
The topics on the table
Veteran journalist Tom Clark will moderate the two-hour debate, the format for which was decided by a debate committee.
That format has been a source of tension. One section was set to feature candidates answering “yes or no” to specific questions, prompting concerns that such a simplistic approach would allow their answers to be reduced to video clips that rivals could weaponize. That section will now see candidates get a chance to flesh out their answers.
The five general topics expected to be debated are the future of energy, the North, the environment, the cost of living, and law and order.
The cost of living is a key theme in this campaign.
Aitchison, the MP for Parry Sound—Muskoka and a former mayor, challenged his rivals to be more forthcoming on their housing policies, saying the debate Wednesday needs to focus on issues that matter to Canadians, and the housing crisis is top of mind.
“I’m glad we agree it’s time for the federal government to take action and work with provinces and municipalities to fix this crisis,” he said,” but I want to challenge my friends running for Conservative party leader. You must be bolder.”
The Liberals, however, may also provide new fodder for the debate: on Wednesday afternoon, the federal government is poised to announce additional funding for abortion services in Canada, potentially forcing the Tory candidates to field questions in the post-debate scrums on whether they ‘d keep or cut those programs. All six candidates are scheduled to take questions.
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