by BJ Siekierski in Saskatoon
Conservative MP Kellie Leitch proclaimed her “common interests” with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in the party’s first leadership debate Wednesday night, as several of her opponents pushed back against her immigration policy.
“I have common interests with Mr. Trump, screening being one of them,” Leitch said several times, picking up where she left off in a fundraising email Tuesday night that told supporters Trump’s anti-elite message was one she was hoping to bring forward with her own campaign.
A Mainstreet Research telephone poll conducted on November 5 and 6 showed Leitch to be the preferred candidate in the race, with 19 per cent support among Conservative supporters — ahead of Andrew Scheer with 14 and Michael Chong with 12.
Leitch aggressively pushed her wedge issue — screening immigrants for their grasp of “Canadian values” — to draw a sharp contrast with her rivals.
“I will protect our Canadian values,” she told the audience, estimated to be around 500. “I am the only candidate who will require face-to-face interviews of new immigrants and screen for Canadian values.”
As he did earlier Wednesday, Chong pushed back.
“Stephen Harper’s government let in three million immigrants and refugees during the 10 years they were in power. Every single one of those immigrants and refugees was screened for security purposes, terrorism, war crimes, crime against humanity, and for health and economic reasons,” Chong said.
“He would not have let in one of those persons if they had not been properly screened.”
Chong also spoke passionately of his mixed-race children, calling them the “new face of Canada.”
It was Deepak Ohbrai, however — a Tanzania-born Indian-Canadian immigrant and an MP since 1997 — who took Leitch on most directly about her fondness for Trump’s approach to politics.
After saying he didn’t “give two hoots” about a woman wearing a niqab — a controversial subject in the last federal election — he momentarily started trending on Twitter.
“Donald Trump’s divisive policy on immigration and social policies have no room in the Canada that I believe in. Unfortunately one of my colleagues admires Donald Trump, but let me tell you as parliamentary secretary for international human rights, I will not stand for any erosion of any human rights of anybody whether in U.S. or in Canada,” he said.
All twelve official candidates took the stage in Saskatoon in an attempt to appeal to Conservative members. The long list of candidates include former Tory MPs Chris Alexander and Andrew Saxton, physician Daniel Lindsay, and current Conservative MPs Maxime Bernier, Leitch, Deepak Obhrai, Erin O’Toole, Lisa Raitt, Andrew Scheer, Brad Trost and Steven Blaney.
Chong touted his economic policy, repeatedly noting that it has been endorsed by four economists. The plan includes income tax cuts and a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which the other candidates all opposed.
Blaney suggested that Chong’s economic ideas are “Liberal.”
“No wonder that the Pembina Institute endorsed your scheme, Michael,” he said. “They endorsed in 2008, in a very kind of same move — the green shift Liberal. That was what it is. They pretended it was revenue-neutral. Well, a tax is a tax is a tax.”
Blaney also attacked Bernier for opposing supply management.
“I like free trade but I love my Canadian milk,” he said. “How can a libertarian oppose a great system that costs zero dollars to taxpayers, (and) offers Canadians quality foods and products at an affordable price.
“Maxime, your plan … it is a disaster blinded by ideology. Why do you finance your campaign on the back of hard working families from our riding who feed our country? Intellectual short cuts.”
Andrew Scheer, who has more caucus support than any of the other candidates, occupied the middle ground, appearing at ease attacking Trudeau’s policies.
He got the best laugh of the night by making fun of himself.
“I will not be taking my shirt off as often as Justin Trudeau does. He may have a yoga body. I have a dad body.”
Raitt, who entered the race just last week, took a folksy approach, referring often to her Cape Breton roots and her experience in Harper’s cabinet.
Erin O’Toole, who served as a Sea King pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, referred to his military experience and told Conservatives that he has a style that allows him to connect with people across the country.
Chris Alexander highlighted the economy in his comments, suggesting that the party struggled in the last election because it lacked “a strong agenda for the new economy.”
Trost said he was the only candidate who encompasses all aspects of the Conservative movement, but failed to mention social Conservative issues, choosing instead to say he doesn’t believe that climate change is caused by humans.
“When I become prime minister, the war on gas and oil and coal is over,” he said.
- With files from Janice Dickson, Stephen Maher, and Kelsey Johnson. Published under arrangement with ipolitics.ca