As Poilievre's events draw big crowds, Charest says he's focused on boosting membership

·5 min read
Jean Charest at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto on April, 21, 2022. (Alex Lupul/CBC - image credit)
Jean Charest at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto on April, 21, 2022. (Alex Lupul/CBC - image credit)

Conservative leadership candidate Jean Charest says his focus in the race is on signing up new party members and putting forth policy proposals — not drawing big crowds to rallies.

Some observers have questioned the health of Charest's campaign in recent days after seeing images from some of his campaign events showing only a few dozen people in attendance. The perceived front-runner, Pierre Poilievre, has been drawing thousands of supporters to some of his rallies.

"Didn't Mr. Bernier also have big crowds?" said Charest, referring to the former Conservative leadership hopeful who went on to found the People's Party of Canada.

"Now, as far as I know, Mr. Bernier does not have a seat in the House of Commons, neither he nor anyone else from his party.

"Don't be misled. This is about memberships."

On two separate occasions in the past week, CBC journalists asked Charest's campaign about taking cameras to upcoming campaign events. They were told his events were for party members and were not open to the media.

Candidates Poilievre, Leslyn Lewis and Roman Baber, meanwhile, have sent out media advisories for some of their campaign gatherings and have invited reporters, photographers and camera crews to attend. Candidate Patrick Brown has not been sending out media advisories.

CBC News asked Charest whether the decision to close his events to the general public was linked to questions about the size of his audiences.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The former Quebec premier said that he is holding public events. Charest's director of communications later issued a statement saying that members of the media can attend his gatherings.

"All of Mr. Charest's member events are open to the public but members and new members are the focus and priority of these events," said Michelle Coates Mather.

"These events are open to media. We have had local media attend previous events and they are welcome to continue to do so, but there is no interview availability or scrum during these events as we don't want to take time away from members."

Charest's events are usually posted on Facebook and invitations are emailed to potential attendees, said Coates Mather.

Charest pitches policy, makes headlines

While the media presence at his events has been limited, Charest certainly has managed to make headlines during the race.

He has been interviewed by national media outlets many times. He drew particularly intense media attention when he said Poilievre should be "disqualified" from becoming prime minister because of the Ottawa MP's support for the trucker convoy that protested vaccine mandates and occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks.

Charest also has released a series of policy proposals — to increase the role of the private sector in health care, to boost military funding and to help more families pay for child care.

All the candidates are running their campaigns their own way, said Charest. He also pointed out that the front-runners in the last two Conservative leadership races — Bernier and former cabinet minister Peter MacKay — both lost.

"I'm the underdog in this campaign. I'm delighted to be the underdog. That's what I have been all my life," he said.

"I have never been about winning polls. I win election campaigns and I will win this leadership."

Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press
Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

Poilievre, meanwhile, has welcomed media attention for recent events that have attracted big audiences.

He's also released some policy, putting a particular emphasis on improving access to housing.

Poilievre has called for Canada to embrace cryptocurrencies and has said he would seek to build more pipelines, repeal legislation he views as anti-energy sector and defund the CBC.

The 42 year-old has embraced social media to get out his message, but he's been more selective about accepting interviews with journalists.

During the campaign, he's talked to major mainstream media outlets in Quebec, but in English-speaking Canada his interviews with national media have been limited to those with conservative leanings.

Tijana Martin / Canadian Press
Tijana Martin / Canadian Press

In her second campaign for the leadership, Lewis has also been touring the country and taking questions from supporters.

Known for her socially conservative views that include limiting access to abortion, Lewis has put up a handful of blog posts that address specific issues.

She said she wants to pass a law protecting parental rights, arguing that "many parents are afraid of even having conversations with their children about certain subjects."

Lewis also recently objected to Canada signing a proposed World Health Organization treaty on pandemic preparedness. She argued that by doing so, Canada would sign away its health care sovereignty.

In an appearance this week on CBC's Power & Politics, Lewis was pressed repeatedly to explain how she can claim Canada risks giving up its sovereignty when the document has not yet been drafted.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Brown seems to be taking a more low-profile approach to the race. He is working the phones relentlessly and doing between ten and 12 events each day, said campaign co-chair and MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

Those events are not set up like a typical campaign rally, she said.

"The structure is to get people to sign up as membership sales captains and then encourage them to state a number of people that they feel like they can bring into the party," she said.

Brown recently tweeted photos of himself in Calgary meeting with the Nepali community, speaking at the Canada Arab Vote dinner and meeting with members of Regina's Muslim community.

"If we want to be a party that's ready to govern, our membership should reflect Canada's diversity," said Rempel Garner.

Brown has done few interviews with national media outlets.

The public will have a chance to compare the various candidates' approaches when the party holds two official debates next month. The English-language debate is set for May 11 in Edmonton and the debate in French will take place May 25 in the Montreal suburb of Laval.

The final vote to choose a new leader is being held Sept 10.

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