OTTAWA — “Are you pro-life or are you pro-choice?” Peter MacKay demanded of his primary challenger for a second time Wednesday. And for a second and, later, a third time, Toronto area MP Erin O’Toole sidestepped the question.
If this sounds strangely familiar, it’s because it is. Wednesday evening’s federal Conservative party leadership debate was reminiscent of another faceoff in French — that one held between Tory Leader Andrew Scheer and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau during last election’s TVA debate. Then, it was Trudeau going after Scheer, demanding to know where the candidate stood on abortion. And it was Scheer who stood awkwardly, saying nothing while Conservative candidates in Quebec wondered whether they could recover from this setback. (They didn’t.)
Wednesday’s French debate was the first chance the four Conservative party leadership candidates to have a go at each other in person. MacKay and O’Toole — the perceived front-runners in the race — seemed to have more than four months of ammunition saved up, trading barbs at every opportunity. Ontario MP Derek Sloan and Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis were left to watch on the sidelines, especially during the open debate format. Both were hampered by their inability to speak French, though Sloan’s has improved since the contest began, and Lewis said she was proud of managing to get through a debate in a language she had just learned.
The real show was between MacKay and O’Toole, who, in their broken French (it’s passable but would likely be deemed inadmissible if they were debating in English), spent a good part of the debate talking over each other.
O’Toole told the audience at the outset that he believes it is up to women to choose for themselves whether to have an abortion or not, adding that “if you hear the opposite tonight, it’s a lie.” He did not respond to MacKay’s repeated questions about his personal positions.
O’Toole, the Conservative MP for Durham, was on the offensive as of the first question, which dealt with equipment for the Canadian Forces.
“You did not deliver the goods,” he said, accusing MacKay of failing to secure the purchase of F-35 fighter jets. MacKay lashed back, saying O’Toole was criticizing the Conservative government for that decision.
And that set the tone for the evening.
MacKay, O’Toole attack each others’ attacks
On the potential of an east-west pipeline, MacKay accused O’Toole of wanting to push the pipeline down Quebecers’ throats without consultation.
“That does not work for Quebec and others,” he said.
On life after COVID-19, O’Toole trumped his detailed platform (he has published the most thorough plan) and said he had a nine-point plan to get the economy moving again, one focused on small businesses, as well as the energy, forestry, aluminum and food industries.
MacKay said he has an eight-point plan, also focused on helping small business and the manufacturing sectors, and trumpeted his experience working in prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet during the last economic crisis in 2008-2009.
“But Mr. MacKay, you do not have a plan,” O’Toole charged.
“You changed your plan, maybe after Mr. [Jason] Kenney’s phone call,” MacKay responded, alluding to the fact O’Toole had scrubbed a pledge in his platform to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies — something Kenney, who has endorsed O’Toole — strongly denies even exist.
“You attacked my Quebec platform,” O’Toole lashed back.
“Oh, it’s funny that Mr. O’Toole is talking about attacks,” MacKay responded. “He is the only one who is running attack ads against other Conservatives.”
Mackay then suggested that O’Toole supports a carbon tax, (his platform says he supports carbon pricing on industry).
“Another lie,” O’Toole said.
And on and on it went.
“Mr. MacKay was the leader of the Progressive Conservative party 17 years ago. We need a leader for the future.”
MacKay said the party needs an experienced leader who wouldn’t say one thing to Quebecers and another thing the next day to the rest of Canada. (MacKay has accused O’Toole of doing this, after O’Toole floated the suggestion that he was willing to vote against a ban on conversion therapy but later tweeted, only in French, that he is adamantly opposed to conversion therapy.) O’Toole pounced, accusing MacKay of being a leader of the past.
“Mr. MacKay was the leader of the Progressive Conservative party 17 years ago. We need a leader for the future,” he said at one point.
He is the only leader who can unite the party and lead them into the future, O’Toole suggested.
“I will work with all the members of our party, and there is no ‘albatross’ in my —” he started to say, before being cut off, in reference to MacKay’s comments last fall in which he said Scheer’s inability to deal with social conservative issues had hung around his neck like a “stinking albatross.”
Watch: MacKay regrets how ‘sticking albatross’ comment was viewed. Story continues below video.
O’Toole’s plan would lead to higher taxes, MacKay charged. “It’s like a Liberal plan. It’s like a plan from Mr. Trudeau.”
“That is not true,” O’Toole said. “... You don’t have a plan!”
The sparring hit a fever pitch midway in the debate, after MacKay started questioning O’Toole about his social conservative credentials.
“I have a question for you!,” O’Toole yelled.
“I have a question for you!” MacKay yelled back. “Mr. O’Toole are you pro-life?”
There was crosstalk as O’Toole tried to bring the matter back to MacKay’s attacks against his five-page Quebec platform.
Debate veers into name-calling
During a later discussion on the environment, O’Toole tarred MacKay as “une girouette,” a weathervane — someone who changes his policies according to public opinion — saying MacKay had supported an industry approach but now opposed O’Toole’s plan.
“Oh! Oh!,” MacKay replied. “That is a good expression, ‘une girouette,’ Mr. O’Toole.
“That’s what you are when you speak about imposing pipelines in Quebec,” he said, somehow suggesting that O’Toole would bring in “war measures,” and saying that was something Trudeau would do, as his father did before him. “Now, we have Erin Trudeau.”
“I am pro-choice, and personally, I have accepted and I agree with same-sex marriage. And I have walked in Pride parades.”
MacKay said the party had problems during the last campaign with “perceptions” regarding same-sex marriage and abortion. He said he is clear on social issues.
“Personally, I am pro-choice, and personally, I have accepted and I agree with same-sex marriage. And I have walked in Pride parades. I can win in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario and reinforce our base out west. It’s essential that we have positions that welcome everyone,” he said. “Clarity is extremely important in Quebec.”
O’Toole didn’t let that opportunity pass by, reminding members again that MacKay had attacked social conservatives with his “stinking albatross” comment. He also assailed MacKay for failing to support expanding LGBT protections in 2013 (in a vote on a private member’s bill).“
“You are so angry,” MacKay said. “Mr. O’Toole, why are you always mad?”
“...But you voted against. Why?” O’Toole responded.
MacKay explains unclear position on free votes
Lewis, who is a social conservative, wanted to know if Mackay would allow his cabinet ministers to vote their conscience on social matters. Although MacKay had previously said he would whip his cabinet, he said Wednesday that he would allow a free vote. “The answer Dr. Lewis is yes,” he said. “Another girouette!,” O’Toole proclaimed.
No, insisted MacKay. He was confident his ministers would respect conservative members’ wish, adopted at the party’s convention, that a Conservative government would not support legislation to regulate abortion, he said.
Although both O’Toole and MacKay are on the progressive side of the party, during this leadership contest O’Toole has courted the support of the party’s numerous social conservatives and has shown openness to some of their ideas.
MacKay has firmly carved out his identity as the progressive candidate in the race.
“Mr. Sloan, being gay is not a choice. it’s necessary to understand that,” he told his opponent at one point, unprompted. “Your position doesn’t respect human rights.”
As MacKay boasted that he had the most caucus endorsements, O’Toole retorted that he had the most endorsements of members under 35 years of age.
O’Toole said the party needs a leader who can be present in the House of Commons right now. And one who can speak both official languages. “He doesn’t have the capacity to speak in both official languages,” O”Toole charged. MacKay’s French, however, has improved markedly in the past five months. .
What was off key was their childish jabs.
“We don’t need another actor in Ottawa,” MacKay said.
“You are a bad actor,” quipped O’Toole.
“I’m not a career politician,” the MP later noted.
“I’m a lawyer now,” MacKay said. “You’re the politician.”
Candidates get practice for English debate
As each accused the other of talking through both sides of their mouths, they actually agreed that the party needs a leader who can articulate the party’s positions clearly.
“You’re the only one that does not have a clear position on social issues. Pro-choice or pro-life?,” MacKay asked again as the debate was wrapping up.
“I’m the only candidate with a clear record,” O’Toole said.
“Pro-choice or pro-life?” MacKay repeated again. “… I’m pro-choice, Ms. Lewis is pro-life, Derek [Sloan] is pro-life. Are you pro-life or pro-choice?”
“Why did you vote against the LGBT community?,” O’Toole shot back.
“He does not answer, because it is a vulnerability for him,” MacKay told the audience. “He will court others but not take a position,” he said, as O’Toole continued to demand to know why MacKay had refused to extend legal protect to transgendered and gender variant Canadians.
“I have a clear record.”
MacKay has publicly stated that while he opposed the bill in 2012, his views have evolved and he would have supported a new version of the bill passed by the Liberals in 2016.
The LGBTQ community knows how he feels, MacKay said. “Will you walk in Pride parades, or is there another ‘But’,” the former Central Nova MP said, as O’Toole insisted he had already walked in a Pride parade. (In January, he said he would walk in Pride parades but not Toronto’s because organizers have barred uniformed police officers from participating.)
“He’ll support women’s rights, but. There is always a ‘but’ with Mr. O’Toole.”
“I have a clear record,” O’Toole insisted.
“In the debate with Mr. Trudeau, there are no ‘buts’,” MacKay said.
And that was how the French debate concluded.
The four candidates have another run at it Thursday. This time in English.
Voting for the new Conservative leader takes place this summer by mail-in ballot. The new leader will be announced shortly after the Aug. 21 deadline.
– With files from Zi-Ann Lum