Divisive ‘drama’ or friendly exchange? 1st debate for Conservative contenders underway

As debates go, it won’t offer the heated one-on-one action of Trump vs. Clinton.

But anyone interested in the future of the Conservative movement in Canada will want to watch as the dozen contenders to take over as leader of the Official Opposition take the stage in Saskatoon. CBC News is livestreaming the first official debate.

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

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’re all realists here,” she said. “We know that drama drives ratings. Those outside of our party will do everything they can to separate us.”

Conservatives have “no intention of going back there,” she said.

If Ambrose’s intention is also the party’s goal, the debate format serves that.

With 12 candidates on stage and only two hours to give everyone a chance to speak, all statements will be brief. The event is structured to avoid direct interaction between candidates.

After 30-second opening statements, one question will be put to each candidate. After each is answered, other candidates will have the option of a “rebuttal,” but there will be no jumping in spontaneously or lengthy one-on-one exchanges. All are limited to 40 seconds.

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.”

Kellie Leitch to campaign on ‘Canadian values’1:09

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.

 “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.”

Chong Carbon Tax 20161102

Federal Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong’s campaign advocates corporate tax reforms and an ambitious carbon tax policy. He believes the divisive approach Conservatives took in the 2015 election limited their appeal. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

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 are:

  • 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 is expected to be in Saskatoon as he continues to mull his decision whether to support any of these candidates or run himself.


Canadian businessman Kevin O’Leary is still mulling whether or not to enter the Conservative leadership race. He joined the party and spoke at its convention in Vancouver earlier this year. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

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.

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 first eight questions Wednesday are billed as “theme” questions that will be posed by moderator Kaveri Braid, a former journalist and political advisor. The final four will come from the audience.

Candidates were given the debate topics at least three days in advance. The themes are: 

  • Economy.
  • National Security.
  • Defence.
  • Trade and Prosperity.
  • Crime and Safety.
  • Environment and Climate Change.
  • Government and Taxes.
  • Immigration and Citizenship.
  • Employment, Infrastructure and Labour.
  • Family, Children and Health.
  • Conservative Party of Canada, its membership, its governance and its future.

The ability of some candidates to speak French won’t be an issue Wednesday: this event is 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.