Politics·Analysis

Conservatives are in a mood to fight — with each other

Twenty minutes into Thursday’s debate between five of the six candidates for the Conservative party leadership, Scott Aitchison appealed for calm. But Conservatives might not be interested in being calm and measured right now.

They're forgetting that today's personal attacks become tomorrow's attack ads

Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre, right, walks past Jean Charest as he takes his place on stage during a debate at the Canada Strong and Free Network conference in Ottawa on May 5, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Twenty minutes into Thursday's debate between five of the six candidates for the Conservative party leadership, Scott Aitchison appealed for calm and seriousness.

"If we can't go out and speak to Canadians in all parts of the country and make sure that we are trustworthy, that we don't scare them … every time I hear a Conservative talk about some conspiracy theory, I realize that there's another group of swing voters in the [Greater Toronto Area] that just are not going to come our way," Aitchison said. 

"Because all we do is yell and scream at each other. We're witnessing it now."

Aitchison, a little-known backbencher, is trying to carve out a niche as the reasonable candidate. While he's very unlikely to win this race, he might come away from it having boosted his personal brand.

And if the Conservative Party loses another federal election in 2025, he might be able to say he tried to warn his fellow partisans.

But Conservatives just might not be interested in being calm and measured right now. That would at least explain the scene on Thursday when the five candidates staged what was probably the most aggressive intra-party debate in recent memory.

A debate that became a brawl

It was Pierre Poilievre who set the tone for this leadership campaign with his early decision to lob rhetorical bombs at Jean Charest and Patrick Brown. But it was Charest who fired the first shot Thursday night with an attack on the Conservative Party's promise in 2015 to establish a "barbaric cultural practices" tip line — something that Charest said was still costing the party votes in 2021.

Charest wasn't involved with the Conservative campaign in 2015, of course. But Poilievre was.

A moment later, Leslyn Lewis decided to accuse Poilievre of being insufficiently supportive of the trucker convoy that laid siege to Ottawa in February and inspired blockades of border crossings in other parts of the country. Poilievre quibbled with Lewis's account and then pivoted to attacking Charest's argument that Poilievre had been too supportive of the convoy.

WATCH: Conservative leadership candidates trade blows over the convoy protests

Who stood up for the Freedom Convoy?

3 months ago
Duration 1:46
Conservative leadership candidates Roman Baber, Leslyn Lewis and Pierre Poilievre sparred Thursday during their first debate over who stood most strongly with the truck convoy earlier this year in Ottawa and against vaccine mandates.

Poilievre next accused Charest of running a scandal-plagued government in Quebec. Lewis said the other candidates — particularly Poilievre — were refusing to be clear about their positions on abortion. Charest criticized Poilievre for ignoring Preston Manning's call for the candidates to avoid personal attacks.

Poilievre and Charest battled over the latter's record as premier and then Poilievre demanded to know how much Charest had been paid by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. When Poilievre wouldn't stop interrupting Charest ("How much? How much?") Charest shot back — "We're not on a student council, Pierre."

WATCH: Poilievre goads Charest over Huawei

'Just the dollar figure please': Poilievre goads Charest

3 months ago
Duration 1:54
During Thursday's debate between five of the Conservative Party leadership candidates, Pierre Poilievre demanded Jean Charest reveal how much money he made working for telecom giant Huawei, but Charest accused Poilievre of not letting him answer.

Charest then made a point of noting that Poilievre had refused to say whether a federal government led by him would intervene against Quebec's Bill 21 if a legal challenge of the law reached the Supreme Court.

Patrick Brown, who was not in attendance, ended up being criticized by both Poilievre and one of the debate's moderators.

Parties used to avoid internal conflict

It was in the middle of all this that Aitchison made his appeal for calm — which apparently offended Lewis.

"When you speak about conspiracy theories, there were a lot of quote-unquote conspiracy theories that came true. And the Liberals actually used that to divide us. So I'm really surprised that you're here saying we should unite when you're labelling your fellow Conservatives as conspiracy theorists," said Lewis, who wrote an op-ed for the National Post in October 2020 that claimed a "socialist coup" was afoot.

WATCH: Charest denies Poilievre's claim that he's not a real Conservative

Charest denies Poilievre's accusations of being a Liberal

3 months ago
Duration 2:48
During Thursday's Conservative leadership debate, Jean Charest insisted he was a staunch Conservative, while rival candidate Pierre Poilievre countered that Charest was wearing a 'blue shirt to cover up a red shirt underneath it.'

Conventional wisdom in Canadian politics — at least since the Liberal leadership race in 2006 — says that leadership candidates should temper their public criticisms of each other. A Conservative attack ad that used a clip of a debate exchange between Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion showed how such disagreements could end up being used against a party.

But Poilievre has always embraced political conflict as a virtue. In this case it's likely an implicit part of his campaign's argument — that if you're a Conservative Party member, you can watch what Poilievre is doing to Charest and imagine what he'd do to Justin Trudeau.

Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis speaks about leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre as Jean Charest and Scott Aitchison look on during a debate at the Canada Strong and Free Network conference in Ottawa on May 5, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Conservatives have now lost three elections to Trudeau, a prime minister for whom they hold special animus. Their last failed leader promised to be a "true blue" conservative and then overturned a decade of party orthodoxy by acknowledging that putting a price on carbon is an effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And it's also been a long two years — for everyone — of living with a pandemic.

Conservatives aren't just mad with each other

So maybe it's not surprising they're feeling a little agitated — a feeling that extends to targets beyond the current leadership race.

There's Justin Trudeau, taxes and government regulation, of course. But candidates like Poilievre, Lewis and Baber pointed last night to other alleged threats and sources of unhappiness: vaccine mandates, public health restrictions, "cancel culture," "wokeism," "censorship," the "elites," the "liberal media" and the CBC. Not to be outdone, the moderators also lamented the effects of the "legacy media" and the "ivory tower commentariat."

Opposing that list were the things the candidates professed to like, such as conservative principles, consistency and "freedom." The phrase "climate change" didn't pass anyone's lips during the debate, but there was lots of enthusiasm for increasing production of oil and gas and building pipelines.

If the Canadian public is feeling angry in 2025, the Conservative Party might find itself in a good position to be a voice for those feelings.

That's assuming Conservatives are still able to stand each other when this race is over, of course.

At the outset of Thursday's debate and then again at its conclusion, Charest notably avoided shaking Poilievre's hand — a reminder, perhaps, that sometimes people take these things personally.

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