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French-language debate suggests a new dynamic in Conservative leadership race

News

Aside from the French-language debate on Wednesday, it was a relatively uneventful week in the Conservative leadership race, but next week marks a major deadline.

June 3 is the cut-off for membership sales for potential voters. Anyone who wants to vote in the leadership race will have to purchase a membership by 11:59 p.m. ET next Friday.

After the deadline, the campaigns will shift from membership acquisition mode to a widespread effort to get out the vote. The new leader will be announced on Sept. 10.

In today’s roundup, we’re focusing entirely on the French-language debate, with a brief summary and some reaction from pundits and Quebec media.

Quebec debate

Wednesday’s French-language debate featured the “pseudo-American” Pierre Poilievre facing off against the “little coalition” of Jean Charest and Patrick Brown.

The other three candidates were on stage, but barely.

As expected, Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber, and Leslyn Lewis struggled with language difficulties during the debate, reading responses from their notes and mostly staying silent during open debates.

Wednesday night showed Poilievre testing out a more mellow tone than his usual adversarial manner, although he did accuse Brown and Charest of forming a “little coalition” against him, as both candidates focused their attacks on Poilievre throughout the night.

In his closing remarks, Charest warned about Poilievre’s politics of slogans and attacks, accusing the Ottawa-area MP of American-style tactics and of being a “pseudo-American.” As in the English-language debate, Charest criticized Poilievre’s embrace of cryptocurrencies and his attacks on the Bank of Canada, arguing that it was a distraction from uniting the Conservative Party and the country.

Poilievre fired back at Charest about his recent employment by the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, demanding to know how much he was paid by the company, giving Charest his least comfortable moment during the debate. A similar moment played out at the English-language debate and Poilievre has been hammering that line of attack ever since.

The debate featured a raucous crowd that ignored instructions to stay quiet, similar to the
English-language debate in Edmonton, although Charest was much more popular with the crowd that gathered in the Montreal suburb of Laval on Wednesday. At one point, two sections of the crowd battled with competing chants of “Poilievre!” and “Charest!”

Le Journal de Montreal focused its coverage on the brief exchanges between the candidates on Quebec’s secularism law and the recently proposed language law, which limits the use of English in the courts and public services.

This race has seen a shift in attitude toward Bill 21, the secularism law that was passed in 2019 and which bans many government employees from wearing religious symbols while on the job. While candidates in the previous Conservative leadership race in 2020 tiptoed around the law, all the current candidates have said they oppose it, although Poilievre has said he would decline to challenge it at the Supreme Court.

Some pundits noticed that Poilievre has been devoting almost as much attention lately to Brown as to Charest, possibly suggesting a new dynamic in a race that has been viewed as a battle between Charest and Poilievre.

“I note that Poilièvre spent almost as much time pushing back against Brown’s attacks than against Charest’s. Which seems to indicate Brown is a factor in this race, thanks to his strategy of selling huge numbers of party memberships to new Canadians,” wrote political columnist Paul Wells, in his Substack newsletter.

Almost all French-language media pointed out a moment of levity in the debate when Lewis criticized Poilievre’s embrace of cryptocurrencies.

“Mr. Poilievre is in favor of digital cash to hedge against inflation. I don’t agree with him. He is amongst the potatoes,“ said Lewis reading her notes and triggering laughter in the room.

Le Journal de Montreal approvingly described the phrase as “very Quebecois” and the National Post said Lewis drew “a supportive laugh” from the crowd.

It would have been a relief for Lewis, who mostly spectated during the debate. Le Journal de Montreal quoted former Stephen Harper adviser Yan Plante on the language skills of Baber, Aitchison, and Lewis.

“Their French is more than rough, it’s painful. Their level of French is not adequate to be on stage,” Plante said.

There’s a chance the New Blue Party could cost Doug Ford a majority government: Pollster

News

A new poll shows Doug Ford’s Ontario Progressive Conservative Party solidly in the lead in the upcoming provincial election, but with a new right-wing party creeping up in the polls and possibly threatening Ford’s chance at a majority government.

The EKOS Research survey found the PCs with 34.5 percent support, compared to 26.7 percent for the Liberals and 24.1 percent for the NDP.

The poll also shows the Green Party with 6.6 percent support and the New Blue Party with 5.3 percent support ahead of the June 2 election.

“The New Blue (Party) could be a critical factor in deciding whether Doug Ford achieves the majority he is seeking,” said Frank Graves, the president of EKOS Research, in a statement accompanying the poll.

In an interview with The Hub, Graves said there are many possible outcomes and, although a New Blue surge that costs Ford a majority isn’t the likeliest scenario, it’s certainly possible.

“New Blue seems to be the analogue of the People’s Party of Canada which posed a similar threat to the CPC in the last election. In fact many of these voters are federal PPC supporters,” Graves told The Hub.

The EKOS poll puts the New Blue Party at about the same level of support as the PPC in Ontario during the last federal election. Post-election analysis conducted by Global News found that the PPC surge cost the Conservative Party six seats across the country, with five of them going to the Liberal Party.

The New Blue Party, which is led by former PC organizer Jim Karahalios and which features his wife, the former PC MLA Belinda Karahalios, was formed in late 2020 and has managed to run candidates in all 124 ridings in the province.

The party has campaigned on the premise that Ford’s PCs have governed as progressives, rather than progressive conservatives.

At a recent event in Ottawa’s west end, Jim Karahalios described the Ford government as “the provincial wing of the Justin Trudeau federal Liberal Party” and an “extension of the McGuinty-Wynne government.” His speech decried the industrial carbon tax brought in by the PCs and pointed out that even after removing COVID-19 spending, the size of government in Ontario has grown under Ford.

The EKOS poll shows that the PC vote tracks neatly with the federal Conservative Party’s support in Ontario and has managed to attract both lesser-educated voters and “self-defined upper class voters,” which Graves attributes to Ford’s approach to the economy.

Ford is still strong among voters who are part of what EKOS calls an “ordered populism” movement, which is defined by opposition to vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions, mistrust in institutions, and economic pessimism.

Ford may also be assisted by the unpopularity of his rivals, with Liberal leader Steven Del Duca getting a favourable rating from only 14 percent of respondents. If the trends from the EKOS survey continue through the next week, the PCs will continue to hold the most seats in the legislature. The size of the PC advantage will be determined by whether the progressive parties can turn the campaign around in its final days and whether the New Blue Party continues to rise in the polls ahead of the June 2 election.

“Doug Ford is on a clear path to form government with eight days to go,” said Graves. “What remains open is whether it will be a stable majority or a less stable minority”.