By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
“Elvis has left the building.”
It was those words from Durham MP Erin O’Toole, among others on stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre in downtown Toronto, that spoke on the race for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada – frontrunner Kevin O’Leary had dropped out, and the remaining 13 would be battling for the title, as well as the supporters of the man who was leading the polls for the party’s top spot.
The debate was the final one for the race, stretching back to when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped down from the helm shortly after his party lost in the 2015 federal election.
O’Toole, who has been in the race to be the party’s leader since making an official announcement in mid-October, is currently near the front of the pack with 10.26 per cent support, good for fourth place, according to an April poll from Mainstreet Research and iPolitics.
Speaking to a mostly full house, O’Toole told supporters that the party needs to reach out to younger voters, something he says he is the man to do.
“We have a prime minister that is leaving behind a generation. And we can show with conservative values, with a plan that understands their needs as they get out of school with high debt, low opportunities for jobs, high housing costs in parts of the country and $100 billion in debt that Justin Trudeau is leaving them, they have virtually no opportunity,” he said.
“Those younger people will look to our party and its economic strengths, so we need a policy and a leader, who has young children that can relate to the families looking for this idea, we need to do this to win those votes.”
O’Toole says he has already heard from volunteers with O’Leary’s campaign that are joining his side, and that he plans to reach out to more of those supporters to get them to vote for him later this month.
“We’re focusing on…why did they support him. Are they urban members here in the GTA or in Calgary, where I have great support, or do they like the private sector and free enterprise? I think I’m very, very competitive with those O’Leary supporters,” the Durham MP said following the debate.
“I’m talking to some of the elected officials who had supported him. I certainly go back with Mike Harris to the Ontario PC days – I’m hoping to get the former premier’s support. I’m going to be reaching out to all of these people to sort of say, ‘Look, here is a true blue conservative who can win in the GTA, in the lower mainland of BC where I have a huge team, in Nova Scotia where there will likely be an election.’
“This is about winning across the country and taking the fight to Justin Trudeau with a leader that can connect with people.”
Upon dropping out, citing his lack of support in Quebec, O’Leary put his support behind the man who he had been battling for top spot in the polls, and is now the frontrunner for the head of the Conservative Party.
The final stretch
With advance polling already underway and ballots distributed, it will just over three weeks until the Conservative Party learns who its new leader will be.
Currently in the lead to become the party’s leader on May 27 is Maxime Bernier, the MP for Beauce, Quebec, as well as a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Industry and Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism under Harper.
Bernier was the target of many barbs from his fellow leadership contenders, with several saying his plans for Canada under a Conservative Party with him at the helm go too far.
“We have a candidate that is proposing to eliminate, the first time in 40 years, the federal government’s role in the delivery of public healthcare,” said Michael Chong, the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills and leadership contender, on Bernier’s proposal to return healthcare and its funding to be a solely provincial responsibility.
“Canadians’ most cherished social program and the most important priority for Canadians. Poll after poll shows that Canadians’ top of mind concern is our public health care system. I think it’s an extreme policy to propose to, in effect, eliminate the Canada Health Act and eliminate federal funding for healthcare.”
“There’s been a few issues that he’s talked about that he hasn’t gone into depth explaining, like abandoning supply management. It would cost billions,” said Andrew Scheer, the MP Regina-Qu’Appelle and closest to Bernier in the polls.
“There’s no immediate benefit to consumers, and we just sold out a huge section of our conservative movement in rural Canada. He’s advocated for free trade with China – there’s a lot of concern around how that would affect Canadian manufacturing. We’re already facing a lot of pressure from the U.S. so there’s some policies that he’s advocating for that a lot of members, I don’t know have been informed about the full breadth of the impact on them.”
Scheer added that Bernier’s policies do not have wide support among voters.
“I think Conservatives win when we take the very best that we agree on and when we take the policies we know enjoy the most support in mainstream Canada, and we run on those kind of things,” he said.
“I’m worried, with Maxime that it’s more of a personal ideology that he’s advocating that doesn’t enjoy broad based support in the general public.”
One thing that candidates did agree on was that something needs to change for the Conservative Party for it to stand a chance against the Liberals and a Justin Trudeau seeking re-election in 2019.
“It’s time for us to be bold,” said Chris Alexander, the former MP for Ajax-Pickering.
“This is not about rehashing the Harper era, settling old scores – this is about a new Canada, the dreams that Canadians have, the opportunity we have as a country to be the best in terms of economy, in terms of nation building.”
“We can’t just speak to the 30 per cent of Canadians that voted for us in the last election,” Scheer added.
“We have to grow, we have to keep our party united, stay true to our conservative principles but find a way to get to 40 and 45 per cent in the next election. Otherwise, we’ll be the best darn debating club in the House of Commons and I don’t want to spend any more time in opposition than I have to.”