Conservative front-runners talk vision and ideas, but leadership contest more a clash of styles

One thing the Conservative leadership race has shown so far is that there is not a lot that the top two candidates disagree about. The race to be Justin Trudeau's next challenger has instead settled into a contest of style and pointed attacks.

In English-language debate, Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole don't stray far from the party's current ground

Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay are the perceived front-runners in the Conservative leadership race, which saw its only two official debates held Wednesday and Thursday in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In the wake of last fall's federal election and Andrew Scheer's resignation as Conservative leader, most pundits would have been hard-pressed to predict that the sharpest clash of ideas at the English-language debate in the leadership race that followed would involve whether or not a future Conservative government should prioritize a push to reform the United Nations.

But midway through Thursday night's program, Peter MacKay reached out and took a swipe at Erin O'Toole for suggesting a desire to pursue the topic. Suddenly, the two front-runners to become the next leader of the Official Opposition were off on a spirited back-and-forth over a relatively obscure concern.

While the French-language debate was a shouty affair, the disagreements in the second and last official debate of the race were restricted to sniping — O'Toole, in particular, had clearly decided to dial himself back. 

But there really isn't a lot that the top two candidates disagree about. The race to be Justin Trudeau's next challenger has instead settled into a contest of style and pointed attacks.

Watch | English debate — O'Toole and MacKay on why they want to be PM:

O’Toole and MacKay on being PM

2 years ago
Duration 4:17
Conservative leadership candidates Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole explain why they want to be the prime minister of Canada.

The Conservative result in last fall's election was ultimately blamed on a number of factors, but two broad areas of policy were singled out for concern: climate change and social issues. On social issues, there were too many questions that Scheer struggled to answer.

Both MacKay and O'Toole are now committed to marching in a Pride parade — though O'Toole says he'll only march if police officers are allowed to participate in uniform — and neither has a record of being staunchly opposed to abortion. Either, however, will inevitably be challenged to account for the opinions that exist within the Conservative caucus.

As for the challenge of combating climate change, neither has yet said anything that amounts to much more than what Scheer had to say. There is a small dispute, propagated by MacKay's side, about whether O'Toole's plan includes something that could be described as a carbon tax, but that doesn't quite amount to a serious policy debate.

There is the vague outline of a debate about whether the party should take a broader or more narrow view of conservatism, but it is not clear how much it amounts to.

Clash of styles

Both candidates seem, perhaps understandably, most focused on winning the votes of the party's most ardent supporters. Except for when a candidate can count on expanding the party's membership with their own base of support, leadership races are perhaps inevitably fought on fairly limited terrain.

At the outset of the leadership campaign, O'Toole seemed more keen to take the unabashed and populist approach. He promised to take on "cancel culture" and the "radical left" and he vowed to "take back Canada." Still now he claims to be the "true blue" Conservative, and suggests that MacKay would make the Conservative Party look more like the Liberal Party.

MacKay might sound sometimes like he wants to convey a broader vision and attitude. But he has also now described Canada's greenhouse gas emissions target for 2030 as "aspirational."

So instead of a clear contest of vision and ideas, the story of this campaign has been the stumbles of the candidates — MacKay has had to backtrack on several statements made by himself or his campaign, while O'Toole rewrote his platform to withdraw a promise to end subsidies for fossil fuel companies — and their attacks on one another.

The attacks had begun long before this week's debates. MacKay, for instance, threatened to sue the publishers of a website that was linked to the O'Toole campaign after the site published a negative article about MacKay. O'Toole's campaign responded by declaring that MacKay's team "has run what is widely recognized as one of the most disjointed and mocked campaigns in recent political history."

On Wednesday night, they took turns accusing each other of lying and complaining about who had attacked who. At one point, MacKay referred to his rival as "Erin Trudeau."

Watch | French debate — O'Toole, MacKay spar over attack ads (with English translation):

Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay spar over attack ads

2 years ago
Duration 2:03
In tonight's Conservative leadership debate O'Toole and MacKay exchange barbs over attack ads that their respective camps have lobbed at one another.

On Thursday night, MacKay used his opening statement to declare that Conservatives shouldn't attack other Conservatives. Shortly thereafter, O'Toole accused MacKay of trying to divide the party at the outset of the campaign — presumably a reference to MacKay's comments that social issues had been hung around Scheer's neck like a "stinking albatross." 

Though more restrained, O'Toole was once again the aggressor, poking at MacKay with both thinly veiled and direct comments. Most dramatically, O'Toole accused MacKay of allowing Huawei, the Chinese communications giant, to establish a foothold in Canada. And then MacKay decided to make an issue of reforming the UN.

"Frankly, we don't have time to try to reform the United Nations, as suggested by Mr. O'Toole," MacKay said.

"Mr. MacKay, we need Canadian leadership now on the world stage," O'Toole came back.

After turns from Leselyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, O'Toole resumed the fight.

"Mr. MacKay seems satisfied with the status quo," he said. "This is why it's time for a next generation of true blue leadership to make these institutions better."

"Well, we need thoughtful ideas, and you're seeing a lot of this tonight. And it happens for us, as a party, when we're able to not attack each other but attack the Liberals," MacKay responded, trying to play the part of unifier. 

Having decided that Scheer was not the right leader, Conservatives now have to decide which candidate they'd like to see standing in his place. Any big thinking about a significant shift in what the party has to offer apparently won't play out until after a new leader is in place.

Watch | Power & Politics full special coverage of the Conservative English-language leadership debate:


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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