Pierre Poilievre risks receiving a heavy fine with a plan to skip the debate on the conservative leadership

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

Posted Thursday, July 21, 2022 9:28 am EDT

Last Updated Thursday, Jul 21, 2022 7:21 pm EDT

OTTAWA – The Conservative Party of Canada’s plan to host a third leadership debate in August may be unraveling, with one candidate refusing to attend and another considering whether it’s really necessary.

The campaign of Pierre Poilievre, perceived as a favorite, announced on Thursday that the long-time MP will not participate in the debate, facing the consequences of a heavy fine.

Jenni Byrne, a senior member of Poilievre’s team, issued a scathing statement on Twitter explaining her decision after the party announced earlier in the day that it would proceed with a debate in early August.

Conservative party rules state that candidates must take part in official leadership debates or face an “automatic penalty of $50,000.”

“Participation is mandatory and no substitutions will be allowed,” according to the rules.

Byrne’s statement noted that Poilievre participated in the first two official debates in May, as well as one organized by the Canada Strong and Free Network, an organization that promotes the conservative movement.

He also criticized the English-language debate held in Edmonton because it featured sound effects and a series of questions about the candidates’ tastes in music and television.

“It was not the campaign’s fault that the party’s debate in Edmonton was widely recognized as an embarrassment…candidates were given ping-pong paddles to hold when they wanted to speak. It was more of a game show than a debate,” the statement said.

“And it happened despite strong warnings to the party about the moderator and the format, all of which were ignored.”

The debate was hosted by former political journalist Tom Clark, whom Poilievre’s campaign criticized as an “elite Laurent liberal media personality.”

A request for comment from Clark has not yet been returned.

Party spokesman Yaroslav Baran said he understands “there are multiple points of view on the discussions to date,” noting that the race rules state that attendance is compulsory.

Byrne’s statement said the plan for another debate comes as Poilievre’s campaign works to win the vote among Conservative members. The parliamentarian boasts of having sold almost 312,000 members, a figure that the party headquarters will not verify. That’s more than the total number of members the party had when Erin O’Toole was appointed leader in 2020.

The party has said a record number of people, some 675,000, signed up as members ahead of the vote.

Members have until early September to return their ballots before the results are announced in Ottawa on September 10. Voting is now underway and most ballots have been mailed out.

Poilievre’s campaign continues to attack fellow leader candidate Jean Charest’s repeated calls for a third debate, saying the former Quebec premier was unable to attract the same size of audience as Poilievre during the spring when candidates sold memberships to their followers.

“That’s why he wants another debate: using Pierre’s popularity among members to attract an audience he can’t get on his own.”

In response, the Charest campaign accused Poilievre of preferring to write messages on social networks “than answering questions in real time.”

“Jean has NEVER shied away from answering tough questions,” he says, adding that he felt the format of the French-language debate held in Laval, Qué., was constructive.

Leslyn Lewis, a social conservative MP from Ontario who is also in the race, said party members had a chance to see the leading candidates present their visions for the country in the previous two debates, which remain online.

“I am not sure what value we are giving members through a hastily scheduled debate at this time,” she said in a statement.

Like Poilievre, Lewis stressed that it is an important stage of the race for candidates to meet members and says he has a packed calendar of events.

“I’ve found that the concerns of ordinary Canadians vary greatly from the high-level political questions we are asked during official debates,” he said.

“The issues facing rural Canadians have not been represented in the discussions held.”

As for whether he plans to participate, his campaign says it is in talks with the party.

In addition to Charest, candidates Scott Aitchison, a rural Ontario MP, and Roman Baber, a former Ontario legislator, also expressed hope for another debate.

Poilievre’s decision to skip the event means there will be not one, but at least two fewer candidates on stage, given Patrick Brown’s recent disqualification on a charge that he may have violated federal election laws.

Brown has denied that allegation.

It is also not the first time during the race that the planning of a debate has been left aside.

Poilievre refused to participate in an unofficial one while the candidates were at the Calgary Stampede.

The Independent Press Gallery, an organization that represents various media outlets and journalists, also announced that it had to cancel a debate it had been planning because there were not enough candidates to RSVP.

The organizing committee for the party’s leadership election says it decided on Wednesday night to go ahead with a third official debate after polling members last week. About 24,000 responded.

“The response was overwhelmingly in favor,” Baran said.

Though officials and campaigns have only weeks to plan for the event, the campaigns were told earlier in the race that their candidates could be called back for a debate in early August at the party’s discretion.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 21, 2022.

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