7 things we learned during the English Conservative leadership debate
OTTAWA -- For the second night in a row, the four hopeful Conservatives looking to take the helm of the federal party took to the stage to debate each other -- this time in English.
Erin O’Toole, Peter MacKay, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis all fared better because they were able to spar in their first language, after Wednesday night’s French-language debate.
Here are seven things we learned from the debate.
1) TRUDEAU MAIN TARGET
After the gloves dropped on Wednesday night the candidates all saved some of their criticisms of their opponents to level in English but for the most part the four politicians on the stage had one main target in their sights: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“I will unite the party as I did before with Stephen Harper, I will defeat Justin Trudeau, and I will bring us back to form a national conservative majority government,” offered MacKay.
“To win the next election, we're going to need somebody to lead with courage, compassion and common sense, the courage to stand up to Trudeau and defend what is right over what is easy,” said Lewis.
O’Toole and Sloan also got in on the attacks on the Liberal government and their policies.
“Justin Trudeau is losing UN bids, upsetting our allies around the country, and we're not at the table,” said O’Toole. “The Trudeau government has left Canada unprepared. We need to get serious, work with our allies, and be more self-reliant and self-sufficient.”
2) GTA SEEN AS KEY REGION FOR GROWTH
Early on in the debate the candidates were asked how they would attract more voters from demographics they’ve struggled to hold ground with, including young voters and those in urban centres.
O’Toole, MacKay and Lewis all had ideas about what would make them the best placed person to pick up seats in the Greater Toronto Area, where the party was unable to establish as strong of a foothold as they had hoped in 2019.
“We need a principled leader who will unite our party by respecting all conservatives, a leader who can show more urban and suburban Canadians that their values of liberty, family, and equality are at the core of our party. That's what I've done to win my suburban Toronto seat, three times,” O’Toole said, calling it a region they “need to win.”
MacKay, while from Nova Scotia, also brought up his Toronto-area credentials.
“I come from Atlantic Canada. I've been living here in the GTA with my family. I've worked and lived in many parts of Canada,” he said.
3) 'TRADITIONAL VALUES' TALK
As was the case during the French-language debate, Thursday’s face-off also included a fair amount of talk about the role of social conservatives within the party and the approach each would take on issues like conversion therapy, abortion, LGBTQ and conscience rights.
For his part, Sloan said he would not be “afraid” to address values issues.
“The Liberals are so radically far to the left in their ideas when it comes to conversion therapy and abortion, that we can gain ground on these ideas. Many new Canadians are social conservatives,” suggested Sloan.
Lewis, the other social conservative in the race, said she thinks the party still needs to respect and uphold the members with “traditional values.”
“All of these parts are important to our great democracy,” she said.
4) MAX CAME BACK
Arguably the most enjoyable portion of the evening was when one youngster appeared on screen to ask a question to the candidates.
“Hi, my name is Max and today I want you to explain why you want to be the prime minister of Canada,” he asked. He was likely not prepared for the responses he got.
Every candidate name-dropped “Max” in nearly every sentence that came out of their mouths over the next several minutes, while painting for the young kid a grim picture of how they view Canada under Trudeau.
"He's saddling your generation with billions upon billions of debt, and less opportunities," said O’Toole.
"I've seen the diminishment of the Canadian dream, Max, and I want that dream for you," Lewis said.
It was the most times someone named “Max” has been on the lips of Conservative loyalists since Maxime Bernier -- the runner up to Andrew Scheer in the last Tory leadership race -- left the party to form his own.
5) LEWIS LEADS CONVERSATION ON RACISM
The ongoing national conversation around systemic racism and particularly anti-Black racism also made its way onto the debate stage on Thursday night, with Lewis leading the conversation.
Responding to a question about each leader’s view on systemic racism and how they would demonstrate leadership on the subject, Lewis said the Conservatives are uniquely placed to be the party that champions equality of outcomes for all Canadians.
“Many people respond to the question of systemic racism, by saying, ‘I'm not a racist.’ That is individual racism. That shows evil intent. So systemic racism, we have to understand, is something very different. It deals with outcomes, outcomes that are negative,” Lewis said. She also made clear her position is that defunding the police is not a realistic option.
“We need to make sure that if there is something wrong with that institution that we work together as a nation to make sure that we build it up, instead of tearing it down,” she said.
The other candidates spoke about the need to condemn racism, and how Trudeau has offered little more than symbolic gestures.
“The discussions are important. The listening is perhaps more important now than ever before,” said MacKay.
6) DESPITE DIFFERENCES, THEY AGREE ON A LOT
As much as the candidates sought to differentiate themselves and outline their policy approaches, there was a lot of agreeing happening on the stage.
“Well, I don't think we're going to be arguing too much here,” offered Sloan at one point. Not much later during a conversation around Indigenous relations he was feeling agreeable as well: “Well, I agree. I think the clean water supplies on reserve should be the number one priority,” Sloan said in response to a comment from MacKay.
O’Toole was also feeling very on-side with some of his opponent’s remarks, particularly with Lewis.
“I agree entirely with Dr. Lewis, there's a number of amazing Canadian technologies we can use,” O’Toole said during the portion of the debate on environment and energy policy.
MacKay too sought to note where he agreed with others, as he and O’Toole both sought to frame themselves as the unity candidate once again.
7) ALL SEE VARYING PATHS OUT OF COVID-19
During the debate the candidates all had the opportunity to outline what they see as mistakes the government has made, or continues to make in its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The four also offered insights on how they’d handle things differently or navigate the country out of the crisis if elected.
“It’s the highest order of failed leadership I’ve seen in my lifetime,” O’Toole said. He said he would “rebuild Canada” and get the country ready for the next wave or next pandemic, including stockpiling personal protective equipment.
MacKay said Trudeau failed on implementing necessary travel restrictions and called out his decision to halt regular parliamentary sittings amid the pandemic.
“Justin Trudeau shouldn’t have tried to avoid accountability but that day is coming,” said MacKay.
Sloan, for his part, said the government should have taken the virus more seriously and not listened to the World Health Organization.
“We cannot afford to do this every two years when another virus comes into China or wherever else it is going to come. We can't afford to do this again. We must make sure that we have testing regimes in place, we must make sure that we have experts who will give us the right advice. We did not have this in this situation and it is exactly what caused an economic shutdown,” Sloan said.
Lewis said a "costed-impact assessment” should have been done earlier on to predict the costs that would be associated with the aid programs that were launched and said she would do a better emergency preparedness strategy and move to close the border sooner.