Jobs and Atlantic Canada occupied much of the conversation as the 14 Conservative Party leadership candidates spoke in Halifax on Saturday evening.
They were at a debate organized by the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives during the provincial party’s annual general meeting.
Many of the candidates took shots at each other in attempts to stand out in the crowded field and take down those seen as favourites.
Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank personality Kevin O’Leary, in particular, took a lot of heat. This was his first debate since announcing his candidacy on Jan. 17.
MP Erin O’Toole of Durham, Ont., who was Minister of Veterans Affairs under Stephen Harper, compared O’Leary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“We don’t beat the celebrity in chief with another celebrity in chief,” O’Toole said.
MP Kellie Leitch of Simcoe-Grey, Ont. also criticized O’Leary and questioned his loyalty to the party.
Leitch, who served as Minister of Labour under Harper and made national headlines for proposing a barbaric cultural practices hotline in 2015 with fellow leadership candidate Chris Alexander, offered O’Leary a wry “welcome to the Conservative Party.”
The format for the debate didn’t allow for much back-and-forth between the candidates. For the most part, it consisted of each of the 14 candidates answering the same questions one after the other.
The Conservatives lost all of their seats in Atlantic Canada due to the Liberal sweep of the region in 2015. At the debate, many candidates promised to bring jobs back to the region, with some candidates planning lowering income and corporate taxes. Others plan to increase international trade opportunities for the region.
Lisa Raitt, the MP for Milton, Ont., said there needs to be a growth plan for each of the Atlantic Provinces, not just for Atlantic Canada, “because we are different.” Raitt, who grew up in Nova Scotia, also called for more Ottawa government jobs to be decentralized to other parts of the country.
The candidates also talked about how to grow the Conservative Party base. Many candidates said the party needs to be inclusive and welcome immigrants. These calls for inclusiveness lay in contrast with Leitch’s proposal to screen potential immigrants for “Canadian values.”
During the debate, Leitch defended her proposal calling it a “common sense” policy.
Carbon taxes were also discussed. Most candidates were opposed to the concept and only Michael Chong supported a price on carbon.
Chong, who is the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont., proposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would involve a large cut to income taxes. His call for a carbon tax was met with very little applause from the audience.
Afterwards, Chong told The Signal that to win the leadership, he would shift the way Conservatives think about carbon taxes. He compared it to the shift the Conservative Party went through with free trade.
“For over over 100 years, up until 1988, the Conservative Party was resolutely opposed to free trade,” he said. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney changed that pattern by convincing conservatives that trade could benefit the country, and “transformed” Canada as a result, Chong added.
Lisa Raitt espoused Nova Scotia’s success in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions without a federal carbon tax saying, “we get things done.”
Nova Scotia’s emissions reductions are due in part to the Climate Reduction Plan, established by the provincial NDP and continued by the provincial Liberals.
At the end of the night, the biggest round of applause was for Raitt’s criticism of Trudeau. She said, “he is not one of us, he is not one of you, and he definitely doesn’t think of you when he makes decisions.”