The Conservative leadership candidates attacked the ethics of their opponents during the only official debate in French, with Jean Charest, Pierre Poilievre and Patrick Brown highlighting past controversies, as they argued about tackling the cost of living and protecting the French language.
In the last scheduled debate of the campaign on Wednesday night, the perceived top candidates distinguished themselves from the other candidates by their bilingual skills. Being able to communicate in both official languages is widely accepted as a basic requirement for any leader of a national party.
The remaining three candidates – Scott Aitchison, Leslyn Lewis and Roman Baber – often struggled to make their way in their second language, frequently reading their pre-written speaking notes, even during sections of the debate that were meant to feature free exchanges.
The French debate was moderated by Marc-Olivier Fortin, a former Conservative Party executive. It was held in Laval, a suburb north of Montreal, in front of a raucous audience of some 700 people, who were largely supportive of either Charest or Poilievre and frequently cheered and booed the candidates’ responses during the two-hour debate. .
Mr. Poilievre, a parliamentarian from Ontario, often focused his attacks on Mr. Brown, his former caucus colleague and current mayor of Brampton.
“You have no credibility in law and order when you are found guilty of violating ethics laws,” Poilievre said, referring to a 2018 ruling by Ontario’s integrity commissioner on Brown’s time as a provincial progressive conservative leader. The ruling found that Mr. Brown had failed to report rental income and failed to disclose a $375,000 loan.
“The only one here who violated Elections Canada laws is Mr. Poilievre,” responded Mr. Brown, referring to a 2017 enforcement agreement in which Mr. Poilievre was found to have violated election laws by using a partisan logo when he made a government. announcement in 2015.
Mr. Brown sometimes struggled with his French grammar and searched for words, but was able to get his message across and engage in free discussion.
After Charest shot Poilievre for his support of the trucker convoy and promised to enact a law against blockades, Poilievre stepped in and raised the Quebec Charbonneau Commission, which was investigating corruption in public sector construction contracts.
“Mr. Charest, I remember the Charbonneau Commission. … Truckers have nothing to learn from you when it comes to law and order,” he said.
In response, Charest said the investigation found no link between political donations and the contracts awarded. “I can lend you my notes because it seems that his reports were not well prepared,” said Mr. Charest.
The only official French debate took place at a politically sensitive time for Quebec. Two controversial laws passed by the Quebec National Assembly were catapulted into national attention this week: On Wednesday, the federal government said it would engage in a legal challenge against Bill 21, which bans religious symbols in some public sector jobs. , if the challenge reaches the Supreme Court. And on Tuesday, the province adopted Bill 96, which expands Quebec’s language laws.
Bill 96 is heavily criticized by Quebec’s English-speaking minority. The law will expand the requirement that French be “widespread” in the workplace by applying it to companies with 25 or more employees. It also establishes that after the first six months, immigrants will receive services exclusively in French, with some exceptions.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Aitchison, a parliamentarian from Ontario, said they opposed Bill 96, and Mr. Brown said the language law goes against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Needing a strong showing in Quebec on his way to victory, Mr. Charest underscored the importance of provincial jurisdiction, saying protecting French is a “sacred duty” of elected officials. His campaign said he would not remain neutral if a challenge to House Bill 96 reaches the Supreme Court.
Mr. Poilievre also called the protection of French a priority.
On economic policy, Mr. Charest attacked Mr. Poilievre for his recent promise to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada if he formed a government. Mr. Charest said that position revealed a lack of understanding of economic policy and suggested that cost-of-living concerns are best addressed through measures such as support for affordable child care.
Poilievre said he would tackle inflation by cutting gasoline taxes and cutting deficits. He was roundly criticized by other candidates for defending cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, as an opportunity to “opt out” of inflation. Cryptocurrencies are largely unregulated and their value has plummeted in recent months.
Opposition to, or lack of clarity about, abortion rights has hurt the fortunes of conservatives in Quebec in past general elections, and Charest tried to force Poilievre to make his position clear. The Ontario parliamentarian said he is “for the right to decide.”
Mr. Charest, Mr. Brown and Mr. Aitchison have previously said that they are in favor of abortion. Ms Lewis is against abortion and Mr Baber has said that he does not think governments should have a say in how people start a family.
Expectations were high for Mr. Charest, who was debating at home. He put on a good show Wednesday and did what he had to do, said Yan Plante, a former senior Stephen Harper administration official who remains neutral in this race. However, it’s not clear if that will be enough because Poilievre also performed well, Plante said.
While Mr. Plante said the Ontario MP sometimes sounds more like an opposition leader than a prime minister, he added that Mr. Polievre is the favorite and that the message he conveyed was simple and popular with members. of the match.
Rudy Husny, also a former Harper government adviser, said there should be a language requirement for leadership candidates because the party is risking its reputation in Quebec when it puts monolingual speakers on the ballot.
“Their level of French was insufficient and they did not belong in that setting,” Mr Husny said of Ms Lewis, Mr Aitchison and Mr Baber.
The party has reserved the right to hold a final debate in August. The party will announce the winner on September 10 at an event in Ottawa.