Jean Charest got new “airtime” on Wednesday, but will this new national exposure translate into votes?
The former premier of Quebec obtained the holding of a final debate of the candidates for the leadership of the federal conservatives – even if his main opponent, Pierre Poilievre, shunned the event, just like Leslyn Lewis.
Mr. Charest compared these absentees on Wednesday to “fish that do not want to swim in the ocean”. But with another six weeks to go before a winner is announced, Wednesday’s event was largely an opportunity for the former Liberal premier of Quebec to scrounge votes from less popular candidates.
“It’s the only card left,” argues experienced conservative strategist Mélanie Paradis.
It was Mr. Charest who urged the party to hold a third and final debate; he had also applauded the authorities’ decision to hold a bilingual debate. He therefore appeared on Wednesday evening alongside the federal deputy for rural Ontario Scott Aitchison and the former Ontario provincial deputy Roman Baber, who hardly shine in French.
It is believed that Mr. Charest’s road to victory on September 10 is narrow at best — and it goes through Quebec, Ontario and the Atlantic provinces.
His campaign has taken on a more subdued tone recently; it offers a series of policies on domestic violence and health care, safety and climate change.
Throughout the race, as during Wednesday’s debate, Mr. Charest insisted that the Conservative Party of Canada needed his experience as a political leader. He was once leader of the former federal Progressive Conservative Party in the 1990s and minister in Brian Mulroney’s government.
But his attempt to run for the federal Conservative leadership constitutes a kind of “political comeback” in Canada, having spent 20 years away from Parliament Hill — and the last decade out of active politics.
His main rival, Pierre Poilievre, has been a federal deputy since 2004 and boasts of having sold nearly 312,000 membership cards during the race – a figure that party authorities have not wanted to confirm publicly.
In total, the party says the voters list now has nearly 679,000 names, of which 400,000 are believed to be new members. As of Wednesday, only 150,000 ballots had been returned to party headquarters: Mr. Charest could therefore address the hundreds of thousands of others who had not yet filled out their ballots.
At this point, Ms. Paradis believes that Mr. Charest’s only game is to try to convince supporters of other less favored candidates to choose him as their first choice.
Rally Aitchison and Baber
During the debate, Mr. Charest also praised Scott Aitchison and Roman Baber, seated in front of him. He said he agreed with Mr Aitchison’s calls for party unity. And he said Baber acted admirably when he defended his principled positions against lockdowns, which resulted in him being kicked out of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative caucus.
At one point in the debate, addressing the two men directly, Mr. Charest said to them: “You all have a place at the table, I want you to know that”.
Political analyst and former Conservative leadership candidate Rudy Husny says Quebec’s vote is crucial to Charest winning the race. However, he recalls the fundraising figures which show that Mr. Poilievre obtained contributions from more Quebec donors than Mr. Charest.
Documents filed with Elections Canada also show that Mr. Poilievre raised more than $4 million in Canada, compared to $1.3 million for Mr. Charest.
Figures released by the party also show that the number of Conservative members in Quebec jumped enormously during the race, from 7,648 at the end of 2021 to more than 58,000 recently.
In this leadership race, each constituency “worth” 100 points in the national ballot – whether that constituency has 200 members or 2,000.