Charest, Poilievre spar over convoy, Huawei in raucous Conservative leadership debate
Five of the six Conservative leadership candidates participated in Thursday's debate
The two front-runners in the race for the Conservative Party's top job traded blows over their records in the first leadership debate of the campaign Thursday.
Making it clear who he thinks his main opponent is, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre used much of his speaking time to attack former Quebec premier Jean Charest, a man he branded as a tax-hiking Liberal interloper.
Poilievre accused Charest of being too critical of the anti-vaccine mandate protest convoy that occupied much of downtown Ottawa earlier this year, saying he was proud to stand with "law-abiding" and "peaceful" truckers who were protesting COVID-19 restrictions.
"Charest learned about the trucker convoy on the CBC like other Liberals and he misrepresented them. He believes I should be censored, cancelled from this leadership," Poilievre said, referring to Charest's past remarks condemning the MP's warm embrace of the protesters as disqualifying.
"I don't share his Liberal viewpoint. The truckers have more integrity in their pinky finger than you had in your entire scandal-plagued cabinet," Poilievre said to Charest.
Charest said Poilievre's aggressive politics are tearing the party apart.
"I've been a Conservative all my life," Charest said. He said standing against the lawlessness that was on display in convoy protests in Ottawa, Windsor, Ont., and Coutts, Alta., doesn't make him any less of a Conservative.
WATCH: Charest denies Poilievre's accusations of being a Liberal
In response to the charge that he's a closet Liberal, Charest offered a defence of fiscal conservatism and cited economic successes in Quebec on his watch. He said he lowered income taxes and championed natural resources development while running the province — two things he's promising to do at the federal level if he makes it to the Prime Minister's Office.
Poilievre attacks Charest over his Huawei ties
Charest said he was best placed to lead the national Conservative movement because he fought off the separatists in the 1995 referendum and won three elections as a federalist premier in a province starkly divided over the national question.
"I fought and won against the separatists. It's not this guy who's going to intimidate me," Charest said of Poilievre.
Poilievre raised Charest's past lobbying work with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that has been singled out by Western intelligence agencies as an espionage threat.
"If we're going to unite this party, we have to come clean. Mr. Charest needs to come clean about how much money he got from Huawei," Poilievre said.
Charest tried to answer but the MP spoke over him repeatedly, asking "How much?" and "Just the number," before the moderators, lawyer Jamil Jivani and journalist Candice Malcolm, had to intervene to stop the cross-talk.
"This is not a student council," Charest shot back at Poilievre. "Is this the kind of country you want? Where people aren't allowed to talk?"
Charest never did say how much money he made from the Huawei contract.
The former premier defended his lobbying efforts, saying the previous Conservative government welcomed Huawei into Canada to help build out the country's 5G cellular network.
He also said he worked with the Canadian government to help secure the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadians who were held captive by China for three years.
"If you want evidence of that, ask the wife of Michael Kovrig," he said. (Kovrig's former wife, Vina Nadjibulla, has said she is grateful for Charest's efforts to help free her ex-partner.)
Charest said he's the best candidate to take on Trudeau
Charest presented himself as the candidate best positioned to lead the party to victory in crucial battlegrounds like the Greater Toronto Area, Vancouver's Lower Mainland and Quebec, regions where he said his brand of conservatism will resonate. Charest said, of all the candidates on stage, he was the one who had the best shot of unseating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the next federal election.
"If you're tired of losing in campaigns and you've had enough of handing over power to Trudeau, then you want a leader who will unite the party and elect a national Conservative government," Charest said, suggesting Poilievre's more avowedly right-wing approach to politics could be a liability for the party in a general election.
WATCH: 'Just the dollar figure please': Poilievre goads Charest
Poilievre pitched himself as the leadership hopeful who is unabashedly Conservative, a candidate who isn't afraid to stand up to the Liberals, the mainstream media and leftists, groups who he said are intent on silencing Conservatives.
He said he wants to put an end to "big bossy government," wind down vaccine mandates, tackle inflation through spending cuts, rein in the Bank of Canada and defund the CBC.
Poilievre said his top priorities are cutting taxes, fighting inflation and "empowering the working class."
"I'm running for prime minister to give you back control of your life by making Canada the freest country on earth," he said.
Poilievre, Lewis squabble over truckers, abortion
While Poilievre sought to present himself as the champion of anti-mandate activists, another contender in this race, Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis, said Poilievre only stood with the cause when it became a "popular" thing to do.
Lewis said Poilievre said nothing about COVID-19 measures like lockdowns and curfews in the House of Commons during earlier stages of the pandemic or out on the campaign trail when running for re-election last fall.
"You did not speak up until it was convenient," she said. "You did not speak for the truckers and you did not speak the loudest."
Independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber, who was turfed from the Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus last year over his opposition to public health measures, said he's the only candidate who stridently opposed COVID restrictions from the outset of this health crisis.
"We shouldn't be afraid of the media or the left-wing Twitter mob. We need to do right by Canadians. We failed to stand up for Canadians. The Conservative Party didn't stand up for them against lockdowns, passports and mandates. I'm uniquely positioned to speak to those voters," Baber said.
Baber, an immigrant born and raised in the former Soviet Union, said he's concerned Canada is becoming a communist country like the one his family left in the 1990s.
He said, under Trudeau, the CBC is like Pravda, the former state-run newspaper published by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. "I am committed to restoring Canada's democracy," he said.
WATCH: Who stood up for the Freedom Convoy?
Lewis, who is a social conservative candidate in this race, chastised Poilievre for his ambiguity on the issue of abortion, a topic that has become more salient in recent days as the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to overturn a landmark ruling.
"He ran from the media in the last few days. He doesn't want to declare where he stands," Lewis said, referencing the Poilievre campaign's relative silence on the issue in the wake of reports the U.S. top court will strike down the Roe v. Wade decision.
"Is he pro-choice or pro-life? As a leader, we'll have to declare that. The media will hound him. He's going to deal with social conservative issues, which he has been running from this entire campaign."
While pressed by Lewis, Poilievre didn't say where he stood on the issue of abortion on the debate stage.
Aitchison pitches himself as a party unifier
Conservative MP Scott Aitchison, a former mayor of Huntsville, Ont., presented himself as unifier, a candidate more focused on bringing together a fractured party than engaging in name-calling and petty squabbles with his fellow candidates.
"Politics are increasingly divided and we've stopped respecting those we disagree with," he said.
"Until we can work together as a team, Canadians are not going to trust us. Here we are calling each other names. What Canadian is going to trust this lot? We've got to do better."
Aitchison said the Conservative Party must be reasonable and its leaders must stop peddling "conspiracy theories," an apparent reference to Lewis, who has raised red flags about the World Economic Forum and the World Health Organization's role in the pandemic.
"We don't want to scare voters away. Every time I hear another conspiracy theory I think, 'Well there goes another group of swing voters in the GTA that aren't going to come our way.'"
Aitchison said some COVID restrictions were necessary but he criticized the federal government's approach to health care. He said, if elected, he'd boost Ottawa's share of health spending to increase hospital capacity and avoid a repeat of pandemic-related lockdowns.
He also said he doesn't agree with the other candidates when they say they want to "burn down the CBC."
He said the public broadcaster tells important Canadian stories and brings the country together but it needs to be "refocused and reined in."
The Canada Strong and Free Network, the host of Thursday's debate, extended invitations to all of the party's six "verified" candidates.
All of them, with the exception of Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, were on stage tonight. Brown declined to attend the event.
WATCH / The full Conservative leadership debate here: