The two frontrunners in the race for the Conservative Party’s top job traded blows over their records in the first leadership debate of the campaign Thursday.
Making it clear who he thinks his main opponent is, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre used much of his speaking time to attack former Quebec premier Jean Charest, a man he branded as a tax-hiking Liberal interloper.
Poilievre accused Charest of being too critical of the anti-vaccine mandate protest convoy that occupied much of downtown Ottawa earlier this year, saying he was proud to stand with “law-abiding” and “peaceful” truckers who were protesting COVID-19 restrictions.
“Charest learned about the trucker convoy on the CBC like other Liberals and he misrepresented them. He believes I should be censored, cancelled from this leadership,” Poilievre said, referring to Charest’s past remarks condemning the MP’s warm embrace of the protesters as disqualifying.
“I don’t share his Liberal viewpoint. The truckers have more integrity in their pinky finger than you had in your entire scandal-plagued cabinet,” Poilievre said to Charest.
Charest said Poilievre’s aggressive politics are tearing the party apart.
“I’ve been a Conservative all my life,” Charest said. He said standing against the lawlessness that was on display in convoy protests in Ottawa, Windsor. Ont. and Coutts, Alta. doesn’t make him any less of a Conservative.
In response to the charge that he’s a closet Liberal, Charest offered a defence of fiscal conservatism and cited economic successes in Quebec on his watch. He said he lowered income taxes and championed natural resources development while running the province — two things he’s promising to do at the federal level if he makes it to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Charest said he was best placed to lead the national Conservative movement because he fought off the separatists in the 1995 referendum and won three elections as a federalist premier in a province starkly divided over the national question.
“I fought and won against the separatists. It’s not this guy who’s going to intimidate me,” Charest said of Poilievre.
Poilievre raised Charest’s past lobbying work with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that has been singled out by Western intelligence agencies as an espionage threat.
“If we’re going to unite this party, we have to come clean. Mr. Charest needs to come clean about how much money he got from Huawei,” Poilievre said.
Charest tried to answer but the MP spoke over him repeatedly, asking “How much?” and “Just the number,” before the moderators had to intervene to stop the cross-talk.
“This is not a student council,” Charest shot back at Poilievre. “Is this the kind of country you want? Where people aren’t allowed to talk?”
Charest never did say how much money he made from the Huawei contract.
The former premier defended his lobbying efforts, saying the previous Conservative government welcomed Huawei into Canada to help build out the country’s 5G cellular network.
He also said he worked with the Canadian government to help secure the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadians who were held captive by China for three years.