What made sparks fly at the Conservative leaders’ debate

At the Conservative debate, friction came over carbon taxes, values screening, farmers and trade, and the value of being an MP

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Candidate Chris Alexander addresses a Conservative Party leadership debate Monday, February 13, 2017 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Conservative Party leader candidates Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch. (Paul Chiasson/CP)
Conservative Party leader candidates Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Two hours of debate among the crowded field of 14 candidates for the federal Conservative leadership in Ottawa produced—along with the predictable put-downs of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the standard small-government, low-tax pledges—several tough exchanges between rivals.

Here’s a highly selective look at moments when sparks flew, and the packed room at the Manning Centre Conference, an annual gathering of Canadian Conservatives, heard sharply different messages on carbon taxes, their party’s image among voters, supply management, and the value, for an aspiring party leader, of having already served as an elected politician.

1. Michael Chong touts his plan to tax carbon dioxide emissions, and Kevin O’Leary tries to shoot it down:

“My plan starts with that revenue-neutral carbon tax and it will allow us to produce one of the largest income tax cuts in Canadian history, an $18-billion income tax cut that we would introduce in our first budget of the spring year 2020. It is the largest income tax cut proposed by any of the candidates here on stage, and the earliest income tax cut. It’s a real plan to get both the economy moving and our greenhouse gas reductions in place.

“It is a true-blue Conservative plan. That’s why Reagan Republicans like James Baker and George Schultz, a week and a half ago in the Wall Street Journal, wrote an op-ed in support of that very plan. Its why conservatives like Mark Cameron, Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper’s former head of policy in the PMO, supports it.”


“When politicians say revenue-neutral carbon tax, that’s BS. And I’ll tell you why. Let’s take our supposedly revenue-neutral British Columbian carbon tax. Here are the facts. Premier [Christy] Clark is milking $500 million out of businesses right now, not giving it back to them. Those are the facts. So it’s BS, and I won’t stand for it in the O’Leary government. That is ridiculous.

“Here’s the truth… Carbon taxes don’t work, particularly cap and trade, because very wealthy companies with big balance sheets get to buy credits and continue to pollute, while young companies that can’t afford credits innovate, create solutions. It’s better to regulate their emissions from the beginning and let everybody keep their capital and create new solutions to emissions.”

2. Kellie Leitch touts her controversial plan to screen immigrants for Canadian values, and Chris Alexander takes the opening to argue that Conservatives would be better off showing more social concern:


“I’ve been very clear with a common sense plan on immigration. I’m pretty confident people know what it is. I think that every immigrant refugee and visitor coming to Canada should have a face-to-face interview, and not only should they understand who we are as Canadians and what our values are, they should also agree to them. So I have a plan. No one else in this race does. But I’m quite happy to continue to talk about it.”


“Well, health care matters for Canadians. Poverty, homelessness and social challenges matter for Canadians. Mental health matters for Canadians. We showed leadership on these issues as a government over 10 years, particularly in the last few years on mental health. We need to continue to show that leadership. The provinces and territories are asking for it, and it goes to our values as an open and caring country. We will not be an open and caring country if we have interviews for every visitor who wants to come from Romania.”

3. On Maxime Bernier’s proposal to get rid of supply management for Canadian dairy, poultry and egg farmers, Lisa Raitt says making that vow before it comes up during international trade talks amounts to “offering [farmers] up on a silver platter.”

Bernier responds:

“I want to do that for Canadian consumers first. That’s why I want to do that. And after that, if we do that, I think we will be able to have more openings [in trade talks] for our softwood lumber and other products. But the most important [thing is], let’s work for Canadian consumers. We’re Conservative. We believe in free markets. How come we cannot have a free market under supply management?”

4. Later in the same section of the debate, Rick Peterson, a Vancouver-based businessman, boasts that working in the private sector gives him special insights. Raitt takes issue, suggesting that Peterson and O’Leary, as the two contenders who are not elected MPs, don’t really know what they are getting into.


“I appreciate the fact that Rick indicates that he’s not part of the political bubble, but I can tell you I know there are two candidates here who’ve never served the public and, I’ll tell you this, there’s nothing like dealing with the real problems, of real constituents, to focus you very specifically on exactly what your job is as a Member of Parliament. It’s not a badge of honour to not be a public servant, and, in fact, it’s a great honour and a privilege of mine.”