By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
Durham MP Erin O’Toole took to the stage for his first two debates on the way to the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Nov. 9 saw O’Toole join the 10 people he is competing against for the position in the first official debate in Saskatoon. Four days later, he was back on the stage once again at a debate hosted by the Kanata Carleton Conservative Association in Greely, outside of Ottawa.
While the first event featured questions dealing primarily about the economy and immigration, the Greely event featured questions from among the 500 or so people in attendance, and ranged from the environment to guns to the age of consent to corporate welfare.
One candidate notably missing from the debate was Simcoe-Grey MP Kellie Leitch, who has been most well known for her position on immigration.
Leitch, who previously served as the minister of labour and status of women under Stephen Harper, says that immigrants, refugees and visitors to the county should be screened for Canadian values.
This has brought her plenty of criticism, including from those she is running against for the Conservative Party’s leadership.
While the reasoning for her absence was not officially announced during the debate, her campaign later said that she left early after a break-in at her Creemore home early Saturday morning.
Although she was not on the stage in Greely, other candidates spoke out against her proposed changes to Canada’s immigration system, with one saying it echoes statements made by Donald Trump, recently elected America’s next president.
“I don’t think it’s right to import for crass political purposes the genuine anger that Americans are feeling and to say we have the same situation here. We do not. She was part of this government for the last four years (of Harper’s time as prime minister) with me when we were reforming immigration, when we were proud of a strong immigration effort,” Chris Alexander, the former MP for Ajax-Pickering and leadership contendant, told The Oshawa Express after the debate.
“I will never be part of a government, and certainly never lead a government, that makes newcomers to this country, visitors to this country, feel like they are under a cloud of suspicion just because they’re not one of us. That is wrong, it will hurt our economy, it sends an unwelcoming message and I regret that it’s become an essential issue of this campaign for one candidate. It is not an issue for the rest of us.”
Dealing with climate change
An issue that garnered a lot of reaction from the crowd in attendance at Greely’s Orchardview Conference Centre was climate change and how to fight it.
Boos rained in from the crowd when Michael Chong, the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills since 2004, laid out his proposal for his approach to a carbon tax. Under his plan, the revenue garnered from the tax would be used to lower income taxes, which he says would make the program revenue neutral. Chong says his plan would also see an end to “green regulations, programs, funds and subsidies.”
However, the crowd quickly turned to cheers when the next candidate, Saskatoon-University MP Brad Trost, stood up and said that he didn’t “believe climate change is a real threat.”
Speaking with The Oshawa Express after the debate, O’Toole says that the carbon tax put forward by the Liberals is the wrong way to go, and that the Conservatives would use a different approach to curb emissions.
“The Liberals look at tax as a revenue tool for government and a stick to punish industry – ‘we’ll punish so you consume less.’ I think we could be creative and use tax as an incentive,” he says.
“If you’re a large emitter and you can get your baseline carbon footprint down over time, we’ll forgo some corporate tax because you’re doing more for the public good.”
O’Toole adds that the carbon tax would be a huge problem for the auto industry, especially with American auto plants just over the border that operate in areas without such a tax.
“People are very worried about the Trudeau government and their spending and how it hits us. The carbon tax has become a really big issue. What I’ve been saying on the carbon tax for months, my colleagues are now using the same lang. I’ve used the auto industry as an example of how dangerous this could be for our economy,” he says.
“It would put Ontario manufacturing at a huge disadvantage.”
Alexander proposed a plan similar to O’Toole’s, agreeing that government should use the carrot rather than the stick.
“If they take the initiative, according to their own plan, to reduce emissions, you get a tax reduction as a result,” he said.
“It basically means that there’s technology available to reduce emissions for every industry, and you let the private sector decide what’s best for them, for their facility and emissions and let them innovate along the way. That creates jobs too.”
Under the Liberal plan, carbon emissions will be taxed at $10 per tonne starting in 2018, rising to $50 by 2022. However, the plan has faced criticism as the plan may be forced on to the provinces.
Getting ready for 2019
With the race for party leadership at stake, all of the candidates spoke about how they intend to grow the party coming into the next federal election in 2019. What most could agree on is that the Conservative Party needs to do more to attract younger voters.
“Today, it’s the young people that form the majority. They are the future of this country. They should also be the future of the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party, through their social policies cannot attract them, we may be in big trouble,” Deepak Obhrai, the MP for Calgary Forest Lawn and currently the longest serving Conservative member in Parliament.
“The best way to attract young people is to ask what they want. Mostly they want jobs, jobs, jobs so they can take care of their children and their family and look after themselves. That’s the direction we should go, and nobody’s better than the Conservative Party in providing a fiscal policy that provides that.”
O’Toole says that younger people will be looking to the Conservatives come 2019 because the Trudeau government and its policies will leave them wanting more.
“We need to make sure that we, as a party, use our conservative principles to make sure we speak to them in the next election,” he said at the debate.
“They looked for some celebrity and change in the last election, they’re going to be looking for competence, they’re going to be looking for opportunity. After three more years of job churn, living in basements, unpaid internships, Trudeau is giving up on a generation.”
O’Toole also says the party needs to take the lessons learned in the 2015 federal election and make sure the same mistakes aren’t made.
“I’m very serious about our party winning back some of that support, especially in Ontario, and we’re not going to do that by being negative and focusing on only one issue,” he says.
Chong said one way to spur a rise in party membership would be to make it free, much like the Liberals voted on moving forward with at its last convention. Currently, the Conservative Party charges $15 for a one-year membership. The fee for the NDP depends on which province you live in, ranging from being free in Newfoundland and Labrador to $25 per year in Ontario, although those fees can be brought down if you are under 25 or unemployed.
Other MPs said that while membership should not be free, it should be made more affordable in order to get more people involved in the party. Earlier this year during a CBC interview, Obhrai said that keeping membership fees high would turn the Conservative Party into an “elitist, white-only club.”