Does the Conservative leadership race need a third debate?

OTTAWA — Whether there will be a final faceoff for the federal Conservative leadership candidates may rest on the will of the party’s members.

Leadership race organizers sent them a survey on Friday asking whether they want another debate, even as hundreds of thousands of ballots have already been mailed out and some already coming back.

But it also follows repeated attempts by third-party groups and riding associations to organize events that ultimately faltered when some candidates simply refused to attend.

Only party-organized events are mandatory for contestants, leading to calls for the party to take on hosting a third event to force the candidates to show up.

What race organizers pitched the membership Friday — and, by extension, the candidates — is a much smaller scale event than the previous two official debates.

Those debates — one in English, the other French — were held before live audiences and broadcast nationally. Both saw candidates spar over their respective records, lay out their policy ideas and showcase the lighter sides of their personalities.

The proposed third debate would be streamed live online without an audience present, and be “more focused and let candidates make their final pitches to members,” the survey said.

Seeking a speedy decision, the party is asking members to reply within 24 hours as the clock ticks down on the Conservatives’ third leadership race in five years.

On Monday, the verification process for ballots will begin for what’s likely to be a record-high number of voters.

Upwards of 675,000 members are eligible to cast ballots, a number that’s more than the last two leadership races combined.

About 280,000 ballots were mailed out earlier in the month, and a second batch of 380,000 was to be mailed out Friday or Monday.

A final wave will follow once the voter list is confirmed, officials said Friday.

Ballot verification involves making sure a voter is on that list, with volunteer and paid party staff checking the identification and personal information each voter is required to submit along with their vote.

Those are kept in a second envelope, and won’t be counted until the entire verification process is complete. Party officials expect to begin the count ahead of the Sept. 10 date for announcing the new leader.

Five candidates are formally in the running for the job. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown’s name is also on the ballot, but he was disqualified last week over alleged financial improprieties. He is exploring legal avenues for appeal.

It’s expected that while votes for Brown will be tallied, his supporters’ second choice selections will be a factor in who ultimately wins.

All six candidates attended the official party debates in May, but efforts to get them together elsewhere have repeatedly failed, much to the frustration of grassroots members.

Brown first refused to go to an event in early May hosted by the Canada Strong and Free Network, a grassroots conservative organization, that the other five candidates attended.

Then, an event scheduled by the Independent Media Gallery for late May was cancelled after Brown, Pierre Poilievre and Scott Aitchison wouldn’t commit.

After that, Poilievre declined to attend a debate organized by the Western Standard — despite the fact he was to be in Calgary at the same time for the Stampede.

Organizers decided to reschedule, but Lewis said she had a conflict with the new date, and pulled out as well.

Various groups of riding associations have also tried to organize debates, but without firm commitments from candidates, have been unable to get them off the ground.

Party officials aren’t unanimous on the question of whether or not to hold a third event.

Some are wary of the time, effort and cost required with only a few weeks remaining in the contest, while others are not sure a debate would make a material difference in how people vote.

But there are others making the case the first two debates were held far enough ahead of the membership cut-off that newer members may not have watched them, and that the party ought to provide as many platforms as possible to allow candidates to equally reach voters.

Aitchison, Roman Baber and Jean Charest all said Friday they’d welcome a third chance to take the stage.

“It’s how we will engage Canadians to keep growing our party so we win the next election,” Aitchison’s campaign manager said on social media Friday.

“That’s the right approach.”

A spokesperson for Charest’s campaign said he would definitely participate.

In an email, Laurence Tôth said the Charest campaign would also like the debate to be held in the Maritimes, as Quebec and Alberta have already played host, and in both official languages.

The Poilievre and Lewis campaigns did not return a request for comment about whether they’re supportive of the idea.

Should candidates decline to participate in official party events, they can be fined.


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By Jon Doe