The Conservative leadership debate focused more on who first supported the trucker convoy

Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis speaks about leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre as Jean Charest and Scott Aitchison look on during a debate at the Canada Strong and Free Network conference in Ottawa on May 5.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The early days of the Conservative leadership campaign have featured top-tier candidates declaring themselves unable to lead, exclusionary and disingenuous, so one must wonder what will happen when they are asked to debate face-to-face. Abuse? stalking? accusations?

Yes, yes and yes. Two things resonated during the 90-minute debate: positions on trucking convoys and unsavory exchanges.

One might have expected the backlash to focus on Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre accusing Jean Charest of being liberal, and the former Quebec premier criticizing Mr. Poilievre’s support for the trucker convoy for ignoring the rule of law. : there was a lot of that. But there was much more.

Poilievre said Charest was running a Quebec government plagued by scandals in a party that accepted illegal donations. Mr. Charest accused Mr. Poilievre of saying one thing about Quebec Bill 21 in French and another in English. At one point, Mr. Charest told him to stop lying.

Pierre Poilievre, Jean Charest discuss trucker convoy, Huawei in Conservative leadership debate

But it wasn’t just those two. Leslyn Lewis, the Haldimand-Norfolk MP seen as the standard-bearer for the party’s social conservatives, criticized Poilievre for being a truck convoy fraud, a supporter of the cause when he was safe and convenient. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown didn’t even show up (his campaign explains that membership sales are more important), but Mr. Poilievre still called him a liar.

And when Dr. Lewis heard fellow candidate Scott Aitchison say something about conspiracy theories, she seemed to think it was directed at her and shot him.

Mr. Aitchison, in fact, played the part of mild-mannered Cassandra throughout the event, telling the audience and his fellow leadership candidates that all the yelling and yelling was going to drive Canadians away. She called, again and again, for a respectful debate, arguing that Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had divided Canadians on the state of vaccines and that Conservatives should not fall into the same trap.

No one paid much attention to him.

In the debate staged during a conference by a conservative organization, Canada Strong and Free Network, there were traditional red meat conservative issues, from oil pipelines to defunding the CBC.

But in this first leadership campaign debate, the candidates seemed remarkably positioned around a newer question: Where were you during the trucker convoy?

Most were eager to say they were in full agreement, with the exception of Mr. Charest.

“Mr. Charest found out about the trucker convoy on CBC, as did other liberals,” Poilievre said.

In return, Mr. Charest said that Mr. Poilievre had supported illegal blockades and disregarded the rule of law.

But aside from the former Quebec premier, there was no debate about whether or not to support the convoy. It was about who supported him first and completely.

And Mr. Poilievre, who has worked to be the favorite of the convoy crowd, saw his credentials challenged.

He was flanked by Dr. Lewis and Roman Baber, the Ontario MPP who was kicked out of Doug Ford’s Ontario Conservative caucus 15 months ago for criticizing the province’s pandemic restrictions, and what really upset Mr. Poilievre was when others candidates suggested that it had not. done enough to oppose the closures and support the convoy.

Baber commented that the closures were not opposed by conservatives, and Poilievre insisted that he “defended liberty from the beginning.”

“That’s not true,” Mrs. Lewis interjected. “You did not speak until it was convenient for you to do so. You didn’t even go to the truckers’ protest. You actually went and took a photo in your neighborhood at a local stop.”

That left Poilievre stammering to insist that he was at the protest, arguing with Lewis about his good faith against the lockdown.

“Only when it was popular,” Lewis shouted.

There were many clashes. There was drama. But the key messages from the candidates didn’t really land. Charest’s argument that he can win elections where the Tories haven’t lately, and Poilievre’s message that he can improve purchasing power and personal freedoms, both got a little lost in the mire.

Also Mr. Aitchison’s.

“I think what’s discouraging is that you see a lot of division even in this race,” he said at the end of the debate. “If we put on a show that is divisive and nasty to each other, I just don’t see how that unites all conservatives. I don’t see how it shows Canadians that we can govern, we can lead.”

But that was not the mood on stage.

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