Charest, Aitchison and Baber face off in last debate of federal Conservatives race

By Stephanie Taylor

OTTAWA – The Conservative leadership candidates who showed up for the last official debate of the race on Wednesday evening began reflecting on what they have heard from Canadians throughout the contest.

“You have had a enough of losing,” said Jean Charest, as he described hearing from Conservative party members who are tired of losing federal elections.

He pitched himself as the only candidate who could change that record.

The former Quebec premier also commended candidates Scott Aitchison and Roman Baber for appearing at the event, which Pierre Poilievre and Leslyn Lewis decided to skip.

Charest, who had pushed the party to hold a third leadership debate, compared the choice to miss a debate to a fish not wanting to swim in the ocean.

Under party rules, Poilievre and Lewis are set to be fined $50,000 for skipping the event.

They had both panned the debate as unnecessary and badly timed for campaigns trying to get their supporters and other party members to fill out their ballots.

Although party rules say the fine for any candidate who decides to skip an official debate is automatic, the party’s leadership election organizing committee will have the final say.

Roman Baber, who was booted from Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s caucus for opposing COVID-19 lockdowns, said he would continue to stand up for Canadians affected by vaccine mandates.

Rural Ontario MP Scott Aitchison, who throughout the race has struck an optimistic tone, said he believes there is more that unites the country than partisan bickering in Ottawa suggests.

The English-language portion of the debate, which took up the first 45 minutes, featured more friendly discussion than sparring between candidates.

They fielded questions on fighting climate change, fixing travel in Canada and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

Talking about climate change, Charest pledged to cancel the Liberal government’s carbon price on consumer goods, saying he would instead impose such a levy on heavy emitters.

Charest, who was federal environment minister under Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, also underscored his experience with climate plans as Quebec premier.

He said the federal party needs to put forward a credible plan if they hope to be elected.

Party president Rob Batherson, who moderated the debate, told candidates and viewers “we don’t have any sad trombones in this debate.”

He was referring to sound effects used during the official English-language debate in May, which many party members, including Poilievre, heavily criticized.