Conservative Party of Canada leadership hopefuls Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber, Patrick Brown, Jean Charest, Leslyn Lewis, and Pierre Poilievre squared off in the first official party debate on Wednesday night in Edmonton, Alta.
From policy conversations to some digs at each other, interrupted at times by a sad trombone buzzer cutting debaters off, here are some key moments from the English-language debate.
POILIEVRE’S CRYPTO POLICY QUESTIONED
While the candidates do have some positions that they seem closely aligned on, like ending pandemic mandates and the carbon tax, Wednesday’s debate showed one big area where other contenders piled on Poilievre: His support for and commentary on cryptocurrency.
It started with Poilievre bringing up his opposition to the Bank of Canada ever creating a digital currency. During the debate he promised to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada, a position currently held by Tiff Macklem, while pledging to restore the bank’s independence.
As part of his ongoing focus on the issue, he’s also recently called Canada’s central bank “financially illiterate.”
In a rebuttal, Lewis drew attention to Poilievre’s commentary on Bitcoin, raising concern over what she thought was questionable advice, and criticized his promotion of decentralized currency, something she said was “a problem” for someone who has been a finance critic.
Charest then pipped in, saying what Poilievre is suggesting is “totally bizarre,” citing a recent drop in Bitcoin value. “Anyone following his advice that we saw on YouTube would have lost 20 per cent of their earnings,” Charest said, questioning whether anyone would want their parents to lose 20 per cent of their retirement funds. “This lunacy, and it doesn’t make sense at all,” he said.
Brown then enters the conversation, saying he agrees with Charest and Lewis, and that “magic internet money fluctuates vastly.”
Looking to defend himself, Poilievre shot back that his position has been mischaracterized.
Brown rebutted: “No one in this room, and no one in Canada will believe that you didn’t say you can opt out of inflation through cryptocurrency. … It is bad advice to be giving to Canadians, that is so risky, and you should know that as a former finance critic, that’s not the advice you should be giving to the country.”
NIGHT STARTS WITH QUESTION ON UKRAINE
After little discussion from Conservatives in Ottawa following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s surprise visit to Ukraine, the first question of the night focused on the ongoing war in Ukraine and whether the contenders support a no-fly zone over the region to prevent Russian-backed air strikes. It’s something Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has long called for, but Canada has resisted.
Lewis argued the attacks on Ukraine “should be taken seriously” but that Canada must not exacerbate the tensions already present.
Baber touched on his Ukrainian roots, and said he’s “heartbroken” over what’s happening. He said there must be a “greater” effort to end the conflict but the only way out is for an agreed upon ceasefire.
Charest argued that Canada should only advocate for a no-fly zone if NATO allies are doing so. He said the government should be sending more lethal weapons, humanitarian aid, and bringing more displaced Ukrainians to Canada.
Aitchison said he doesn’t agree with invoking a no-fly zone but pointed to the fact that Canada hasn’t met NATO’s recommended defence spending target of two per cent gross domestic product.
Brown said Canada should advocate for a no-fly zone to show, on the world stage, that NATO is serious and stands steadfast with its allies.
Poilievre said he doesn’t agree with the proposal but said Canada should be providing more lethal weapons to Ukraine and offer refuge to those fleeing. He said the government also needs to “unleash” Canadian energy production to help break European dependence on Russian oil.
ASKED ABOUT ABORTION LAWS
While each contender had come out publicly following last week’s U.S. Supreme Court leak indicating a reversal of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, declaring where they stand on abortion rights, the candidates had an opportunity on Thursday to expand on their views.
Asked “would you support legislation around abortion,” Charest said he is pro-choice and a government under his leadership would not bring in legislation or support legislation to change or restrain the rights of women.
Aitchison said he will “always” defend a woman’s right to her personal reproductive health choices, “period.”
Brown said he is pro-choice and supports a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion and a government under his leadership wouldn’t revisit the issue.
Poilievre said a government under his leadership wouldn’t introduce or pass legislation restricting abortion.
Lewis said she is pro-life and that Conservatives need to have more conversations about what they “believe in.”
Baber said he doesn’t believe the government should have a role in how people start and grow their families.
INSIGHT INTO CANDIDATES’ MUSIC, TV TASTE
The debate also took a turn into pop culture when moderator Tom Clark suggested that many Canadians may still not know much about the contenders, which resulted in a departure from discussing policy and instead getting a bit of insight into what’s on the candidate’s entertainment rotation.
In addition to talking about what books each candidate is reading, and who their political hero is—names dropped in these sections included David and Goliath, Jordan Peterson, Sir Wilfred Laurier, and Margaret Thatcher—the Conservative contenders chatted about their music and TV preferences.
Aitchison said as a pianist he likes listening to Oscar Peterson, but has been getting into country music on the road. And, the last thing he binge-watched was “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
Baber said he can “see into” Amy Winehouse’s soul, and last watched “Married with Children.”
Brown has been listening to Brampton’s own Alessia Cara, and is in trouble with his wife because they’re behind on watching “Ozark.”
Charest name-dropped Franco-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour and said he likes the show “Call My Agent.”
Lewis is a Jazz fan, naming John Coltrane as a favourite. She’s also one of the many who binge-watched “Bridgerton.”
And, Poilievre said he likes “Alberta Bound” singer Paul Brandt and found the Netflix series on Trotsky interesting, because he said it helped him “to better understand the diabolical evil of communism and totalitarian socialism.”
Contrary to what many expected to be an even nastier debate than the first unofficial face-off last week, Wednesday’s rematch proved to be far more civil.
While moderator Tom Clark warned of using a “sad trombone” noise when candidates didn’t follow the official debate rules, he acknowledged later in the night that all six had been “incredibly disciplined” with their time.
“On behalf of myself, I just want to thank all of you for a superb debate tonight, an exchange of ideas. As I said, good, passionate debate is the lifeblood of a good democracy,” Clark said.
The audience was also under strict orders to avoid cheering for candidates mid-debate.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few fiery jabs thrown.
In one exchange, Brown accused Poilievre of “hiding in his basement” during deliberations around whether governments should impose pandemic lockdowns.
On the subject of law and order, Charest also targeted Poilievre for his support of the ‘Freedom Convoy,’ arguing that he was trying to “rewrite history” by denying his backing of the movement.
All candidates didn’t shy away from attacking Liberal-backed policies and Trudeau specifically, though they were asked to not identify him by name.