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Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates (left to right) Erin O’Toole, Peter MacKay, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis wait for the start of the French-language leadership debate in Toronto on June 17, 2020.
Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates (clockwise from top left) Peter MacKay, Leslyn Lewis, Derek Sloan and Erin O’Toole during the French-language leadership debate in Toronto on June 17, 2020.
Four candidates were on the stage Wednesday night for the Conservative leadership race’s French-language debate, but for most of the evening it might as well have just been Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole.
The race’s two front-runners dominated the airtime and aimed all their barbs squarely at each other, even when paired up in head-to-head debates with the other two candidates, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis.
In the debate’s opening exchange on national defence issues, O’Toole accused MacKay of “failing to deliver” new fighter jets for Canada while he was defence minister in the Harper government. Pointing to his own time in the military before entering politics, O’Toole said the party should elect a leader with “real experience.”
MacKay responded by thanking O’Toole for highlighting his time working on many procurement projects as defence minister, a position he held for six years — and then noted O’Toole’s total experience as a cabinet minister was just 11 months.
Later, during a question about economic recovery, MacKay and O’Toole furiously debated who has launched nastier attacks on the other during the leadership campaign. The moderator had to eventually break in to allow the other candidates to speak.
In part, the dynamic was due to the debate taking place entirely in French. While MacKay and O’Toole are still improving theirs — MacKay apologized cheerfully at the beginning for speaking in a “small accent” — they were at least able to fully debate each other in the language.
Sloan and Lewis, meanwhile, were significantly handicapped by their weaker grasp of French. Lewis has only started learning French, which left her confined to reading prepared statements. (Candidates were given the subject areas ahead of time, but not the specific questions.)
All four candidates will be on firmer ground Thursday night, when they debate in English.
During the debate, MacKay and O’Toole clashed particularly on environmental issues, with MacKay accusing O’Toole of planning his own version of the carbon tax on large industrial emitters, and of wanting to impose a pipeline on Quebec without consulting with Quebec’s government.
O’Toole fired back by saying he had extensive sections in his platform on both Quebec and the environment, and accused MacKay of putting in only a “few words” in his own platform. He said his platform has a balanced approach to getting major energy projects built, and would respect provincial jurisdiction.
O’Toole called MacKay a “flip-flopper” for having earlier supported a pricing regime on large industrial emitters, but now attacking O’Toole for advocating the same. MacKay pointed out O’Toole had to remove a promise from his platform to end fossil fuel subsidies, and suggested O’Toole had to back down because his Western supporters — specifically Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — were angry about it.
You are an angry man, Mr. O’Toole you are always angry
There was also a significant clash between the two on social issues and who is best able to build an inclusive party.
“You are an angry man, Mr. O’Toole you are always angry,” MacKay said.
“The same thing applies to your friend, Mr. Kenney.”
MacKay brought up a recent Radio-Canada report that featured leaked audio of O’Toole’s comments to Quebec social conservatives. According to the report, O’Toole appealed for them to rank him high on their ballot, and said he had some concerns with the Liberals’ proposed legislation aimed at banning conversion therapy.
O’Toole subsequently posted a tweet in French saying he condemned conversion therapy, but MacKay nonetheless accused him of saying one thing to French audiences and another to English.
“You don’t have a clear position,” MacKay repeatedly told O’Toole, and demanded that O’Toole clarify whether he’s pro-life or not. (After the debate, O’Toole told reporters he supports a woman’s right to choose.)
O’Toole, meanwhile, brought up MacKay’s remark from the fall that social conservative issues were an “albatross” around Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s neck during the federal election. O’Toole also promoted his policy of allowing free votes in the party on matters on conscience, as Stephen Harper did, and contrasted it with MacKay’s past position that he’d expect his cabinet to vote against any abortion legislation. However, MacKay said on Wednesday that he would also allow a fully free vote on conscience issues, including his cabinet.
O’Toole called MacKay “the wrong person” to bring together the party and the country.
This debate was the first one held during the leadership race due to the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The party had initially planned for two official debates in April with live audiences, but they were cancelled when provinces ordered lockdowns. Instead, the rescheduled debates — including Thursday’s in English — are being held with no audience and with pre-taped questions from party members.
Voting in the leadership race will take place this summer by mail-in ballot, and is scheduled to conclude Aug. 21. The race uses a ranked ballot, meaning a candidate will need to eventually collect 50 per cent of the vote to win.
— With a file from The Canadian Press
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020