Conservative leadership debate in disarray after Lewis, MacKay back out

A new media organization’s plan to host all four Conservative leadership candidates for a debate Wednesday was thrown into disarray when two of the contenders dropped out.

Leslyn Lewis announced hours before the event that her doctor had ordered her to stay away because she is battling an ear infection and has a fever, though she has tested negative for COVID-19.

Shortly after, Peter MacKay declared he wouldn’t go either, saying it wouldn’t be fair if only three of the four candidates were onstage, and called for the event to be rescheduled.

The event was organized by the newly formed Independent Press Gallery of Canada, run by Candice Malcolm, a conservative columnist and analyst.

The organization was set up this year, and journalists who wish to join must sign a declaration that they will not accept any government funding and sign onto a statement of journalistic ethics and principles.

Organizers decided to go forward with back-to-back “fireside chats” with the two remaining candidates, Erin O’Toole and Derek Sloan.

The “show must go on,” Malcolm said in her opening remarks as she took a direct swipe at MacKay.

MacKay criticized for decision

Lewis is ill and organizers wish her well, Malcolm said, but MacKay, who lives in Toronto, made a choice.

“Leadership is about resiliency, courage and trust, and voters can judge for themselves what they think of Peter MacKay’s last-minute decision to reneg on his commitment and abandon this event,” she said.

The Conservative Party hosted two official leadership debates in June, and all four candidates appeared at those.

Peter MacKay said he decided not to take part in the debate because it wouldn’t be fair if only three of the four candidates were onstage. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The moderator for Wednesday’s event was Andrew Lawton, who, along with Malcolm and several others, is part of the True North Centre for Public Policy.

The centre, a registered charity, describes itself as a non-governmental, non-partisan organization conducting research and investigative journalism.

In mid-May, True North published a piece attacking MacKay for refusing to sit down with its reporters for an interview, saying he was the only one of the four candidates who had yet to grant their request.

Leslyn Lewis withdrew from Wednesday’s debate because she is battling an ear infection and has a fever, though she has tested negative for COVID-19. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

MacKay has granted interviews to other conservative outlets, though he has also skipped out on other leadership debates, including two hosted by groups of Conservative riding associations in both B.C. and Ontario.

He cited scheduling conflicts in both cases.

In his statement Wednesday, MacKay said he had been preparing for the debate when he learned Lewis couldn’t make it.

“I was looking forward to taking part in tonight’s debate to articulate my positive vision for the future of the Conservative Party and because of the role the Independent Press Gallery is taking in promoting free and fair speech,” he said.

Lewis said missing a chance to participate in a debate hosted by the organization was a disappointment.

“I want to thank the Independent Press Gallery for their understanding, and I look forward to continuing to connect with voters from my home over the next little while [as] I recover and am able to meet with people in public once again,” she wrote.

The debate comes as Conservative Party members are now filling out their ballots and sending them back by mail to party headquarters. The deadline for them to be returned is Aug. 21, and a winner is to be announced shortly after.

Lewis has been making steady gains in the race since she entered as a relative newcomer earlier this year.

Many party members have been posting photos of their marked ballots on social media, and while those are just a fraction of the 269,000 people eligible to vote, it has become common to see her name marked in second place on the ranked ballot used by the party.

She, O’Toole and Sloan are competing for a similar pool of voters, and for all three a key objective for Wednesday had been to make the case for a first-choice ranking on the ballot by contrasting themselves with their rivals.

Both Sloan and O’Toole focused more directly on their own positions as Lawton pushed them on questions including whether more “conservative” judges need to be appointed and why free-market conservatives still support government regulations of some agricultural commodities.