The four Conservative leadership contenders faced off in a French-language debate Wednesday, a contest that was at times halting as none of the candidates are fluent in Canada’s other official language.
The two frontrunners, former cabinet ministers Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, spent much of the debate attacking one another — with MacKay trying to brand O’Toole as a candidate who’s out of step with the mainstream on social issues like abortion, and who would replicate some of the Liberal government’s environmental policies.
O’Toole, in turn, called MacKay a “career politician” who doesn’t have what it takes to defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the next election.
The candidates spent much of the debate reading from prepared notes — reciting talking points on the topics that were known to them in advance.
MacKay and Erin O’Toole, being more comfortable in French, were able to converse without relying exclusively on scripted lines.
Leslyn Lewis, the Toronto-based lawyer, does not speak French and rarely strayed from her notes. During a question on energy policy, she read an answer about supporting Canada’s official languages policy.
WATCH | Conservative leadership debate opening statements (with English translation):
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Lewis said it was “scary” to debate in French.
“After two and a half months of lessons I’m just happy to have gotten through it,” Lewis said, adding that having learned at least some French in such a short time is a testament to how hard she’ll work if elected leader.
Derek Sloan, a rookie MP who was first elected in 2019, seemed equally uncomfortable.
As MacKay and O’Toole sparred, the former accused his primary opponent of “saying one thing in French and something completely different in English.”
“Your whole campaign is based on lies. Are you pro-choice or what? Tell us, tell us,” MacKay said halfway through the debate.
WATCH | MacKay says he would let his cabinet have a free vote on social conscience issues:
The question referred to O’Toole’s promise, early in the debate, that he would support a woman’s right to choose.
MacKay said such a pledge was disingenuous. O’Toole has courted social conservative voters and has also said he’s uncomfortable with the Liberal government’s legislation to ban conversion therapy.
“I’m pro-choice. I agree with gay marriage. I can win in Ontario and Atlantic Canada and I can strengthen our base in the West. That’s what we have to do. We have to take a position where we welcome everybody,” MacKay said.
“You’re an angry man, Mr. O’Toole. You’re always angry,” MacKay said at one point.
“You’re an angry man like your friend, Jason Kenney,” MacKay said, referencing the Alberta premier who has backed O’Toole for leadership.
O’Toole bristled at MacKay’s criticism, saying it’s important to “respect all our members,” including social conservatives.
O’Toole tried to present MacKay as yesterday’s man — MacKay led the now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party in the early 2000s before its merger with the Canadian Alliance — saying he wasn’t the right choice to lead the party now.
“I will unite the movement. I’m the leader for the future. Mr. MacKay is the leader for the past,” O’Toole said.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, O’Toole said he supports a woman’s right to have an abortion and he respects LGBT rights.
“I’ve always had those positions in politics. I’ve always tried to be clear and respectful … Mr. MacKay is running a very negative campaign,” O’Toole said, adding that he lost the last leadership contest to Andrew Scheer in part because some members perceived him as “too moderate” on social issues.
WATCH | ‘You’re an angry man’ MacKay says to O’Toole
MacKay brandished his socially moderate credentials throughout the debate, at one point slamming Sloan, who has previously questioned whether being gay is choice, for having “problematic” views.
“Mr. Sloan, being gay isn’t a choice. It’s necessary to understand that. There are many, many problems with this position. It’s not the position of a modern party. It’s not a position that respects human rights,” MacKay said.
After the last election, MacKay said Scheer’s embrace of social conservatives — and his refusal to march at Pride — were a “stinking albatross” around the party’s neck during the campaign.
In a news conference after the debate, MacKay repeated his claim that social issues were a drag on the party’s performance in the 2019 election.
“We’re a contemporary party that has a huge opportunity to win the next election but to do that we need a clear position on social issues. That’s my plan,” he said.
Lewis and Sloan, who have embraced the social conservative wing of the party, said people who hold traditional views of such matters must be respected or there could be an exodus of supporters.
WATCH | Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis on social conservatism in the Conservative Party:
During the debate, MacKay also attacked O’Toole’s environmental policy proposals, saying his plan “looks a lot like Mr. Trudeau’s plan.”
“He has this new sort of carbon tax and I really hope we don’t end up with a leader that supports a carbon tax like Mr. O’Toole,” MacKay said, saying the country didn’t need an “Erin Trudeau.”
O’Toole fired back: “That’s a lie!”
While O’Toole has promised to scrap the Liberals’ national carbon tax, he has said he would support provinces that choose to enact their own carbon pricing regimes.
He also has committed to “get to net-zero emissions” in the oil and gas sector, something the Liberals also have promised to do nationally by 2050.
WATCH | O’Toole, MacKay spar over attack ads
O’Toole has said his environmental plan will focus on “making industry pay” through a “national industrial regulatory and pricing regime.”
In response, MacKay said the platform “does not sound like it was written by someone running to be the leader of our Conservative Party.”
Different environmental plans
Sloan promised to withdraw Canada from the Paris climate accord, saying the Liberal government’s climate change plan is motivated by “alarmism” not science. Lewis said she supports a UN-backed document like the climate accord as long as it doesn’t infringe on Canada’s “sovereignty.”
Sensitive to the criticism the party faced in the last election, O’Toole said he has a “balanced plan” that will focus both on protecting the environment while also supporting the development of major energy projects like pipelines and liquefied natural gas development in Saguenay, Que.
“We need to have a serious environmental platform for the next election. As the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, I will have exactly that,” O’Toole said.
In the initial version of his platform, O’Toole promised to end “fossil fuel subsidies,” which he called a form of corporate welfare.
After some backlash whipped up by MacKay’s backers, O’Toole re-released his platform without reference to subsidies.
“You changed your plan and one-page of your platform completely disappeared,” MacKay said. “Western MPs took one look at your platform — and then you changed it. That’s why we have a major issue with you.”
O’Toole accused MacKay of being a flip-flopper saying he was once more supportive of environmental initiatives.
O’Toole said Canada needs a “serious leader” who can debate the Liberals in the House of Commons and on the campaign trail. “I’m very proud of my plan.”
“If we’re going to win the next election it’s very simple … we have to win more seats around greater Toronto. I can win more seats there through ideas — including a policy on the environment. I’m the only candidate with a plan on the environment,” O’Toole said.
MacKay’s environment plan reads much like what Scheer pitched to voters in the last election — a promise to achieve “advances in technology,” invest in “carbon sequestration” and to sell Canadian natural gas around the world to displace coal as a source of energy.
He said the problem with Scheer’s plan was not the substance but how it was communicated to voters.
O’Toole said some of MacKay’s surrogates attacked him for having a Quebec-specific section of his platform. He said he is best positioned to win seats in the province.
“It’s very strange that Mr. O’Toole should be talking about attacks because he’s the only one who has attack ads,” MacKay said, referencing a campaign ad that branded MacKay as too “weak” to take on the Liberals in the next election campaign.
WATCH | The full Conservative leadership debate