Conservative candidates split over carbon tax, immigration policy

The format didn’t allow for any direct attacks on fellow candidates, but the twelve contenders for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership found quite a bit to disagree on during their first official debate in Saskatoon.

Party members won’t vote on their next leader until late May. But this first viewing of the large field — two women and 12 men for now — set the tone for the next six months of campaigning.

Ontario MP Michael Chong joked that it would be like a debutante coming out at a ball, as the candidates introduced themselves and their positions. But the fast-paced format more closely resembled an express tour of who intends to stand for what in this contest.

In the process, real differences of opinion emerged on the merits of carbon taxes, immigration strategy and the best way to support the agriculture sector.

At her September caucus meeting in Halifax, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, picked to serve as Opposition leader during the long process to replace Stephen Harper, called for party unity.

“We know that drama drives ratings. Those outside of our party will do everything they can to separate us,” she said, but Conservatives have “no intention of going back there.” 

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With 12 people on stage and only two hours to cover a range of topics, Conservative leadership candidates had to keep their statements brief at their first debate on Wednesday evening. But they turned up with key messages prepared to expose differences in each other’s platforms. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

But contenders did manage to work attacks on each other’s policy positions into the brief statements the debate format afforded them.

Twelve questions were asked, eight written by the party and four identified as coming from party members. The topics ranged from jobs and the economy to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to immigration. Several questions directly referenced Tuesday’s U.S. election result.

U.S. election an inspiration?

The first debate finds Canadian conservatives considering their way forward just as Americans have elected a Republican president, Donald Trump, as well as Republican majorities in Congress, following a bitter and divisive campaign.

In an email to her supporters, candidate Kellie Leitch said “our American cousins threw out the elites,” calling this an “exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well.”

It said she is the only candidate who is “standing up for Canadian values.”

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Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch stuck to her call for extra screening of newcomers to Canada based on ‘Canadian values,’ despite criticism that she was playing politics with immigration policy. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

Leitch, as well as Steven Blaney — who called for a ban on wearing the niqab in launching his bid — make this focus on “values” central in their pitch.

“Two-thirds of Canadians have said they agree with me on that policy and that transcends party politics,” she said before the debate began. “I’m out talking to Main Street and that’s what I’m hearing.”

Other candidates disagree, including Michael Chong, who issued a statement Wednesday calling Leitch’s policy of singling out newcomers for more screening “a losing strategy.”

“Canada is not the U.S. We have a different democracy, a different society north of the 49th parallel,” he told CBC News. 

While he too believes in paying attention to the concerns real people face in their everyday lives, Chong said “anybody who wants to mimic Donald Trump’s election tactics is not being helpful to building a big tent Conservative movement.”

“That’s her debate. That’s not my debate,” Maxime Bernier told CBC News. “We have strong screening here in Canada… This country has been built by immigration and we must be proud of that.”

​Kicking off her campaign last week, Lisa Raitt said that Canadians are more focused on jobs and the economy.

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Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong repeatedly plugged his plan for wide-ranging tax reforms and an ambitious carbon tax policy. Most other candidates oppose a carbon tax. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

 “The road that Steven Blaney and Kellie Leitch are going down is catastrophic,” said Vancouver businessman Rick Peterson, who expects to join the race next week. 

“There are no Conservatives in urban ridings in Canada because of that,” he said. “If the next leader of the party is someone who espouses those values and puts them as a number one priority, we’re going to end up being a third-place party in Canada.”

Large field may grow, then shrink

The candidates who filed the required paperwork and paid at least an initial $25,000 installment to meet last week’s registration deadline for this first party-organized debate were:

  • Chris Alexander.
  • Maxime Bernier.
  • ​Steven Blaney.
  • Michael Chong.
  • Dan Lindsay.
  • ​Kellie Leitch.
  • ​Deepak Obhrai.
  • ​Erin O’Toole.
  • Lisa Raitt.
  • Andrew Saxton.
  • Andrew Scheer.
  • ​Brad Trost.

Seven of the candidates served at some point in Harper’s former cabinets. Scheer served as Speaker of the House of Commons.

Only Lindsay, a Winnipeg doctor, has never held a seat. Two — Alexander and Saxton — were defeated in 2015 and are no longer MPs.

The field is still growing. Peterson told CBC News yesterday that he has nearly finished collecting the signatures required in time to join the next scheduled debate in Moncton on Dec. 6.

O’Leary there to watch

Former MP Pierre Lemieux has also declared his candidacy but not yet filed his papers.

Businessman and television personality Kevin O’Leary attended the debate, as he continues to mull his decision whether to support any of these candidates or run himself.

He sat in the audience, just behind the moderator — appearing frequently on camera as a result.


Businessman Kevin O’Leary (left) is still considering whether to enter the Conservative leadership race or support another candidate. He sat just behind the debate moderator Wednesday, appearing frequently on camera as a result. (CBC News)

Candidates have until February to enter the race, although they will have missed party-sanctioned leadership debate opportunities by then.

The full registration fee of $50,000 is required to access the membership lists needed to nail down support for the ranked-ballot process. Scheer issued a press release Wednesday to say that like Chong several weeks ago, he has now fully paid up.

Partisans wishing to vote have until a March deadline to buy a membership. 

Candidates also have to put down a $50,000 compliance deposit. Given the strict fundraising rules and limits in federal politics, several campaigns say raising money is a challenge — one that could narrow the field before the final vote.

No French required tonight

The ability of some candidates to speak French wasn’t an issue Wednesday: this debate was only in English.

A future debate will be in French and the other three the party is organizing will be bilingual. No translation will be provided for candidates unable to function in both official languages.

Some riding associations are organizing their own additional events, such as one planned in south Ottawa on Sunday featuring nine candidates.

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