EDMONTON – An appeal to families, an appeal to values and an appeal to the oilpatch — leadership hopefuls in the Conservative party’s heartland went straight for its heart Tuesday as they squared off yet again in a bilingual debate.
Thirteen of the 14 candidates crowded onto a stage in Edmonton to put their campaign policies on display for two hours and occasionally spar over popular themes like carbon pricing, the perils of a Justin Trudeau government, immigration policy and the meaning of Conservative values.
The 14th candidate, maverick businessman Kevin O’Leary, opted out of the debate, claiming the all-candidates format is little more than “a series of 10-second sound bites.” Instead, he held his own gathering with party members at a downtown hotel across the street.
In a 90-minute question-and-answer session, O’Leary reiterated his goal to run the federal government on a rational, business-oriented framework, one aimed at creating jobs and opportunities for the 18-35-year-old cohort he believes is so key to forming a majority government.
He also renewed his attack on Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, saying her team has made the low-oil slump much worse by introducing new levies such as the carbon tax and by failing to provide incentives for oilpatch development.
“If she worked for me in any of my companies, I would have fired her a long time ago,” O’Leary said to applause. “She is a toxic cocktail of mediocrity and incompetence blended into one drink.”
While there were a few jabs at O’Leary, it was Michael Chong and his support for a “revenue-neutral” carbon tax — a controversial position in Conservative circles, as well as in Alberta — who was among the biggest targets at the debate.
“It is the cheapest way to reduce emissions, it is the most Conservative approach,” said Chong, who was roundly booed by the Alberta audience every time he brought up the idea.
“I am committed to this policy because it is a conservative policy that will do right for our children and our grandchildren, and do right for Canada.”
Chong likened the battle to former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s bid to secure a Canada-U.S. free trade deal in the 1980s.
Mulroney did a 180-degree turn on the issue “because he knew that fighting for free trade was the right thing for his children, and his grandchildren,” Chong said.
Saskatchewan MP and former Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer dismissed the notion out of hand.
“I’ve never seen a revenue-neutral carbon tax,” he grinned. “If Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and a revenue-neutral carbon tax all see a dollar on the sidewalk, which one picks it up?”
Scheer was one of several candidates who repeatedly spoke in French during the debate, as he’s also one of the few fluently bilingual contenders.
O’Leary is not, a fact that prompted an aside from Quebec MP Steven Blaney as he sought to defend the fortunes of the oilpatch.
“Every day, we lose $16 a barrel because we don’t get our oil to market,” Blaney said. “This is more than $10 billion we could invest in our society … both in French and in English, we need to stand up as a country and break those barriers between provinces.”
Blaney focused more of his attention on fellow Quebec MP Maxime Bernier’s policy to end supply management, a popular program in Quebec.
Bernier said ideas like that, however, is why his campaign resonates with Albertans.
“I speak like you, about economic freedom, personal responsibility, capitalism but — sorry about that — with a French accent,” he said in his brief opening remarks.
Lisa Raitt, who opened the proceedings, alluded to the challenge of standing out in a crowd of familiar faces when she joked about how she and her rivals “violently agree” on the same policies.
She also stressed her connections with ordinary Canadians and returned repeatedly to her experience as a cabinet minister and as a lawyer in an effort to position herself as the person to lead — and grow — the party.
Raitt took issue with Erin O’Toole’s assertion that he’d reach out to legion halls and church basements to rally conservatives.
“You know where we have to go? Hockey rinks, soccer fields, voters who didn’t vote for us last time,” she said.
The need to speak to those voters saw several candidates turn on Kellie Leitch for her policy to screen everyone coming to Canada for so-called Canadian values like generosity and hard work.
Leitch repeated her pledge that anyone seeking to enter the country should be interviewed face-to-face.
“We win when we are not afraid,” Leitch said. “I’m going to fight for those Conservative ideals every single day.”
Leitch even threw in a plug for a promotional video she has on her website that’s received more attention for its odd production values, skewed camera angles and pregnant pauses than any of its messaging — a sign, perhaps, that she welcomes the attention, be it good or bad.
Rick Peterson, a B.C. businessman with long connections to the party, said Leitch’s ideas were good but her messaging wasn’t working, calling her campaign a train wreck.
“We have been hurt by the polemic and the bad vibes coming out of that campaign,” he said.
Immigration policy also surfaced as each candidate was asked for how they’d press the government to respond to asylum seekers from the U.S. coming into Canada at unmanned border crossings in Quebec and Manitoba.
“It’s corrosive to public confidence, it has to stop,” said Chris Alexander, the former immigration minister, who once stood next to Leitch to announce a tip line for so-called “barbaric cultural practices.
He wouldn’t stand beside her on her immigration policy.
“What I’m sick and tired of is one of my colleagues on this stage implying for that for 10 years (former prime minister) Stephen Harper and (former immigration minister) Jason Kenney and the rest of us did not screen immigrants for Canadian values, for national security and for criminality,” he said.
“We did that, we made the system better.”