Conservative candidates spar over inflation, abortion — and TV shows — in an unusual leadership debate

Conservative leadership candidates took the stage Wednesday in Edmonton for what turned into an unorthodox, wide-ranging debate that featured discussions about the war in Ukraine, abortion and supply management — with detours on the topics of binge-worthy TV shows and the candidates’ current reading lists.

Debate moderator Tom Clark, a former veteran political journalist, promised a debate heavy on policy issues and free of interruptions, which was largely the case for the the bulk of the debate.

You can watch special live coverage of the event beginning at 5 p.m. ET on this page, on CBC News Network or on CBC Gem.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the perceived front-runner in the contest to replace Erin O’Toole, focused most of his speaking time on economic issues, the cost of living and surging inflation figures.

As prime minister, Poilievre said he would replace Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem, who he accused of acting as the federal government’s “ATM,” which has driven inflation and made life unaffordable for many Canadians.

WATCH | Poilievre says he’d fire the Bank of Canada governor as prime minister:

Conservative Party leader candidate Pierre Poilievre says he’d replace governor of Bank of Canada

1 hour ago

Duration 0:34

When asked how he would fight rising inflation rates, Poilievre says he would start by replacing the governor of the Bank of Canada in an effort to make leaders accountable for the rising cost of living. 0:34

“People feel like they’ve lost control of their lives,” Poilievre said. He repeated his campaign pitch to “fire gatekeepers” responsible for cumbersome bureaucracy and to make Canada the “freest nation on Earth.”

Poilievre was frequently targeted by fellow candidates on stage, notably former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, who are considered by Tory insiders as Poilievre’s top competitors to become party leader.

Charest said Poilievre’s promise to fire Macklem was “irresponsible” and would make companies second-guess their investments in Canada.

WATCH | Charest and Poilievre debate the future of the Conservative party:

Charest, Poilievre spar over future of party — and their records

1 hour ago

Duration 5:39

Conservative leadership candidates Jean Charest and Pierre Poilevre share their visions for the Conservative Party during Wednesday’s debate, but also take aim at each other’s positions and political records. 5:39

Charest and Brown lob attacks at Poilievre

On the candidates’ support for the freedom convoy protests, Charest accused Poilievre of simultaneously denouncing illegal blockades while more broadly supporting protests against pandemic restrictions and vaccine mandates.

“Mr. Poilieivre is very conveniently rewriting history tonight. The fact of the matter is that he did support illegal blockades,” Charest said.

In a section on cryptocurrency and its potential role in helping Canadians weather the effects of inflation, Brown accused Poilievre of misleading Canadians through “late-night YouTube videos” in which he championed the benefits of cryptocurrencies.

Poilievre, for his part, attacked Charest as a phony Conservative with a long track record of raising taxes and painted Brown as a politically motivated operator who has changed positions on numerous issues during his career in federal and provincial politics.

Early in the debate, candidates were each asked to provide their position on a range of hot-button topics but had little time to debate each other directly due to the strict time constraints on answers.

WATCH | Brown and Poilievre debate the merits of a no-fly zone over Ukraine:

Poilievre, Brown on Ukraine no-fly zone

2 hours ago

Duration 2:18

Conservative leadership candidates Pierre Poilevre and Patrick Brown stated differing positions during Wednesday night’s debate on whether Ukraine’s Western allies should establish a no-fly zone over the country to protect it from further Russian attacks. 2:18

In a question on the war in Ukraine, all candidates except Brown said they would oppose the establishment of a no-fly zone over the country, which the Ukrainian government has repeatedly asked for.

On abortion, all candidates except Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis indicated either said they are pro-choice or that they would not introduce legislation on abortion as prime minister. Charest jumped on Poilievre after the Ontario MP did not definitively describe himself as pro-choice.

“On this issue can we be clear on one thing? Every candidate in this race needs to tell the women of Canada where they stand, whether they’re pro or against,” Charest said. “And Mr. Poilievre’s answer quite frankly does not fit that test.”

WATCH | Leadership candidates debate the future of abortion access in Canada:

Conservative party leadership candidates discuss abortion in first official debate

2 hours ago

Duration 2:01

Conservative leadership candidates Pierre Poilievre, Patrick Brown, Jean Charest, Roman Baber, Leslyn Lewis and Scott Aitchison share their positions on abortion during the first official debate of the race. 2:01

Ontario MP Scott Aitchison, as he did in last week’s unofficial debate, appealed to voters as a reasonable, calm potential leader and promised to end the “politics of division.

“If we offer a principled, consistent message to Canadians we can form the next government,” he said in his closing remarks.

Lewis said she would build bridges and repair the distrust in Canadian politics. She also railed against “woke-ism and cancel culture.”

Former Ontario MPP Roman Baber focused his pitch to party members on his credentials as a voice against vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions, a position that caused his removal from the Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative caucus. He said Canada must “end 21st century segregation and let people make their own medical decisions.”

A brief detour away from politics

While the debate mostly focused on policy issues, the candidates were also asked during a section of lightning round questioning about lighter topics, including about their political heroes, the most recent TV shows they’ve binged and the books they’re currently reading.

Poilievre said he’s reading the book 12 Rules for Life by the Canadian writer and psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has generated controversy by his hardline stances against identity politics and gender issues.

“I think he has a lot of good wisdom in that book that could help anybody,” Poilievre said.

WATCH | Leadership candidates debate enforcement against illegal blockades:

Conservative Party leadership candidates debate illegal blockades

45 minutes ago

Duration 2:14

Conservative Party leadership candidates Pierre Poilievre and Patrick Brown went head to head over the topic of illegal blockades and whether they believe movements such as the trucker convoy should be made illegal. 2:14

Candidates will meet again on May 25 in Montreal for a French-language debate before resuming campaigns that will run for nearly the entire summer.

No further debates are scheduled, although the party says it is reserving the right to organize a third debate in late August.

Conservative members will vote for their third permanent leader of the past five years at a convention on Sept. 10.

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