Politics·Analysis

Conservatives have big things to fight about — whether they want to or not

Hanging over this leadership race are fairly profound questions about what the Conservative party should be — what it should stand for and how it should comport itself.

There are a lot of big issues to debate, not least what the Conservative party should be

Jean Charest raises his 'intervention paddle' at the Conservative Party of Canada English leadership debate in Edmonton on Wednesday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Much about Wednesday night's Conservative leadership debate — which included sound effects, props and questions about the candidates' reading and streaming habits — seemed designed to limit the space available for actual debate.

Maybe that was a reaction by the Conservative party to last week's debate, which became a story about how readily the candidates were willing to disagree with each other in public

Maybe Wednesday night's organizers were always planning to hand out paddles the candidates could raise if they wanted to say something during the half of the show allotted for open debate, and then tell the candidates that they could only raise their paddle so many times.

Either way, it is a shame.

Because there are a heck of a lot of things worth discussing right now — combating climate change and transitioning to a low-carbon economy, housing affordability, the future of health care, the challenges to liberal democracy both at home and abroad. (Unlike last week's debate, the words "climate change" were at least spoken on Wednesday night, so perhaps that counts as progress.)

But also because hanging over this leadership race are fairly profound questions about how the Conservative party should be — what it should stand for and how it should comport itself. And whether or not those questions are ever fully confronted in public, the result of this race seems likely to have a major impact on what kind of political force the Conservative party will be going forward.

Candidates, left to right, Leslyn Lewis, Roman Baber, Jean Charest, Scott Aitchison, Patrick Brown, and Pierre Poilievre pose following the Conservative party's leadership debate in Edmonton on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Differences over the convoy and crypto

There is, for instance, the matter of the self-styled Freedom Convoy, which various Conservatives embraced to varying degrees, and which has become a point of conflict between Jean Charest and Pierre Poilievre.

There are any number of questions raised by the convoy and the Conservative party's alignment with it. Participants in the protest opposed public health rules, flew "F--- Trudeau" flags and promoted a "memorandum of understanding" that called for the overthrow of the democratically elected government. 

But Charest has chosen to fight Poilievre on the basis that the protest resulted in illegal blockades. It is Charest's contention that Poilievre's support for the convoy is a problem because political leaders should be unequivocal in their support for the rule of law. Poilievre argues that he supported the protesters who adhered to the law and didn't support the protesters who didn't.

At this point, a plurality of Conservative voters are still inclined to support the convoy — even while most everyone else remains opposed. But if any Conservative other than Charest sees that as a problem, they aren't being very loud about it.

There are more candidates willing to challenge Poilievre's support for cryptocurrencies.

WATCH | Conservative leadership candidates accuse Poilievre of encouraging Canadians to invest in bitcoin:

Conservative candidates take aim at Pierre Poilievre for his stance on bitcoin

2 months ago
Duration 5:21
Conservative leadership candidates Jean Charest and Leslyn Lewis accused Pierre Poilievre of encouraging Canadians to invest in the digital currency.

It was Leslyn Lewis who brought that to the fore on Wednesday night when she accused Poilievre of encouraging people to buy bitcoin. Poilievre tried to protest that he was not providing investment advice and he only wanted people to be "free" to invest in and use cryptocurrencies, but Lewis quickly reminded him that he had touted cryptocurrencies as a way to "opt out" of inflation. 

Charest jumped in to describe Poilievre's crypto advocacy as "totally bizarre" and "lunacy." Patrick Brown accused Poilievre of handing out "bad advice" about "magic Internet money."

Poilievre's vow to fire the Bank governor

But the signature moment of Wednesday night's debate — and perhaps the signature moment of this entire leadership campaign — came early, when Poilievre somewhat offhandedly mentioned while being questioned by the moderator that he would fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.

Poilievre has already accused the Bank of Canada, who he blames for inflation, of being "financially illiterate" and he promised recently that the auditor general would be given a new mandate to review the Bank's activities (in keeping with a general notion about the independence of the central bank, it is currently audited by private firms). He also said on Wednesday night that the Bank's plans for its own digital currency could facilitate "surveillance, control and censorship."

But his surprise announcement of a plan to fire the governor — which would, at the very least, set up the sort of political conflict that Canada hasn't seen in more than 60 years — went nearly unremarked upon until Charest finally came back to it more than an hour later.

"Mr. Poilievre's suggestion of firing the governor of the bank of Canada, his suggestion that the Bank of Canada is 'financially illiterate,' is irresponsible," Charest said, segueing from what was supposed to be a segment about the cost of living.

"It creates doubt. If you're an investor looking at coming to Canada and you hear that kind of a statement, coming from a member of the House of Commons, you'd think you were in a third world country. We cannot afford to have any leader who goes out there and deliberately undermines the confidence in institutions. Conservatives do not do that."

WATCH | Firing Bank of Canada governor would be irresponsible, says Charest:

Conservative Party leadership candidate Jean Charest says firing Bank of Canada Governor would be 'irresponsible'

2 months ago
Duration 0:52
Jean Charest says Pierre Poilievre's claims that the Bank of Canada Governor should be held responsible for inflation rates and subsequently fired is an "irresponsible" claim for a candidate vying for leadership of the Conservative Party to make.

Poilievre couldn't respond — he had used up all his turns with his paddle. He also skipped an opportunity to speak with reporters afterwards.

But if he took an opportunity to respond — and he was speaking candidly — he might say that he is, in fact, running a campaign against institutions. He is running against an idea of the establishment and what he says the establishment is up to. That's what links the convoy, cryptocurrencies and the governor of the Bank of Canada — as well as Poilievre's embrace of suspicions about the World Economic Forum (which actually predates Poilievre's run for the leadership).

Poilievre might say the current state of things in Canada justifies such stuff. Charest might say that choosing to follow that path only leads to bad places. They would likely have very differing views about where the Conservative party's electoral interests lay.

But this is a debate worth having — not least because the outcome could have a significant effect on Canadian politics.

However much anyone enjoys or feels squeamish about intra-party conflict, it's still the substance of the fight that matters more than the spectacle.

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