Having one last opportunity to publicly address all members of the Conservative Party, Jean Charest insisted that he was at least physically present.
“You have to show up. You really have to show up,” he said, seated around a small table with two of his fellow candidates for the third official Conservative leadership debate on Wednesday in Ottawa. “You have to talk to the members. You can’t treat them with contempt.”
Later, he added that “leadership is about showing up…in all circumstances.”
Charest didn’t use Pierre Poilievre’s name, but he didn’t need to — because Poilievre (with Leslyn Lewis) obviously wasn’t there.
Without the presumptive favorite – and all available metrics suggest Poilievre could have an overwhelming lead – there could be no debate. Wednesday night’s event therefore seemed mostly an opportunity for the other candidates to offer a few parting words before the party apparatus was likely handed over to Poilievre.
Whatever Charest’s protests, Poilievre’s absence seems a logical extension of his protest politics. Poilievre isn’t the first frontrunner unwilling to take unnecessary risks in a divisive debate.
But he didn’t just skip the debate – his campaign criticized the party for even trying to hold a third official debate and party organizers publicly castigated for the way one of the earlier debates was staged.
Then last night Poilievre appeared at his own event in Regina and mocked the candidates who took part in the debate.
Many conservatives have no doubt been delighted to see Poilievre throwing rhetorical bombshells in other directions over the past few months (and years), but Poilievre operates on the internal logic that you’re either with him or against him – and other conservatives clearly should not assume that they are immune to being placed in this latter group.
Worries about anger and division
Scott Aitchison, the Tory backbencher who ran as the even-tempered and reasonable candidate in the leadership race, again made noise on Wednesday night about the tone and direction of the party.
“Our response to Justin Trudeau’s divisive politics cannot be more divisive. We must lead with respect,” he said. “We need to deliver real solutions to the challenges Canadians face every day and produce a government that really delivers results. We can’t be the party that just denounces government — we have to be the party that delivers better government, that truly respects taxpayers’ money and gets results. »
Later, Aitchison said, “This leadership campaign has been divisive and, in some cases, embarrassing.”
If it was directed at anyone in particular, Aitchison said nothing. But the upshot of it all was simply that conservatives need to “come together”.
“Whoever led 9/11, each of us must come together,” Aitchison said.
Should the Conservatives still unite if the party fails to live up to Aitchison’s stated ideals? Maybe that’s a question for another day.
When it was his turn to make a closing statement, Charest tapped into the verve that has made him a formidable voice in Canadian politics for more than 30 years, and hit on what could have been a central part of an argument against Poilievre’s candidacy.
“A lot of Canadians are…tired, they’re frustrated, some of them are angry. But anger is not a political agenda,” Charest said. “The challenge for real leaders who come forward is to take that and translate it into something positive for the future of the country.”
There was a similar twinkle from Charest in the much-deplored leadership debate in May.
Nothing is over until all the votes are counted. But had Charest run a stronger, smarter campaign at this point, he might have been in a better position to land such a closing argument. It seems unlikely that simply showing up for a third debate will be enough to swing the leadership race now.
As things stand, Charest will likely have to make do with the possibility of being able to say “I told you so” if Poilievre’s Conservative Party leadership ends in tears.