O’Learly makes Conservative Leadership debate debut, attacked by other candidates

Conservative leadership candidates Kevin O’Leary (left) and Kellie Leitch (right) applaud during Halifax debate / Andrew Vaughan (The Canadian press)

Kevin O’Leary seems to be the man to beat in Canada’s race for the Conservative leadership, with several other contenders focusing a significant portion of their air time during a recent debate on attacking the businessman and reality-TV star turned politician.

The Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den star made his debate debut during an event in Halifax on Saturday.

“First I’d like to welcome Kevin to the Conservative party and I’d like to welcome him back to Canada,” opened Kellie Leitch, referencing the criticism O’Leary has faced for living in the United States in recent years.

“We have a celebrity-in-chief” said Erin O’Toole, in reference to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “We don’t beat the celebrity-in-chief with another celebrity-in-chief.”

“We are not on the Dragon’s Den stage tonight,” said Maxime Bernier. “You are not applying to work for us. We are applying to work for you.”

Michael Chong viciously attacked O’Leary for posting a video of himself firing various firearms at a Miami gun range the same day a funeral was held for three of the six victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting.

“He had the audacity to post the video on the same day we were burying the victims of one of the worst mass shootings in Canadian history,” said Chong. “That video will cost us the next election.”

The attacks did not seem to bother O’Leary, who used his allotted time to answer the debate questions, and did not once attack any of the other 13 candidates. “I thought it was a wonderful welcome actually,” said O’Leary following the debate.

The reality TV star promised to win young voters back from Trudeau, citing his popular appeal and recognition from his TV shows.

O’Leary was not the only candidate coming into the debate with a scandal looming over his head. Leich has also been criticized by members of her own party for suggesting last year that all incoming immigrants be screened through a ‘Canadian values test,’ to determine their compatibility with Canada. She has also said she will make immigrants pay for the test’s administration.

The debate tackled topics from climate change and carbon taxes, to mental health and mandatory minimum sentences, but often veered down strange paths reminiscent of the recent American election, with some candidates attacking statistics and economists, and other spreading misinformation regarding Canada and the rest of the world.

The economy always managed to take center stage, with leadership hopefuls always finding room to reiterate their commitment to creating jobs and supporting small businesses.

The event opened with a debate over the controversial carbon taxes recently introduced by the Liberal party. Of the 14 candidates on stage, all but one vocally objected to any form of carbon tax. Michael Chong proposed supporting taxing carbon, calling it “the most conservative way to reduce emissions.”

“I think we need to get real about this issue. The fact of the matter is climate change is happening, and it’s a serious threat,” said Chong, to quiet boos from the crowd.

“I’m the only candidate on this stage with a credible policy to reduce emissions that will both protect the economy and the environment.”

Chong came under considerable attack for his support of a carbon tax initiative, which he claimed is backed up by four university economists.

“If I had four economists supporting my plan, I’d go back to the drawing board and re-write it,” said Andrew Saxton, who continued to say the opinions of economists should be ignored because they don’t make enough money.

“[Economists] are in their ivory towers, sipping tea and coffee, talking about theory not practice. The carbon tax doesn’t work,” continued Saxton.

Many of the candidates questioned the purpose of reducing carbon emissions in Canada, especially when it comes at an economic cost, when the country emits relatively little carbon compared to emission giants such as the U.S. and China. All candidates unanimously agreed the current system should be scrapped entirely.

O’Leary was also attacked for his former support to a “Trudeau-style” carbon tax, although he reiterated he is now firmly opposed to any tax on carbon.

The conversation eventually shifted to healthcare, with all candidates criticizing Canada’s system as expensive, ineffective, and slow.

“Canada has the worst wait times for surgery in the developed countries,” said race front runner Bernier. He went on to say that Canada spends the most on healthcare out of all members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In truth, the U.S., as well as nine other members of the OECD spend more on healthcare per capita than Canada does.

The U.S., for example, spends 17 per cent of its GDP on healthcare costs, as opposed to Canada’s 10 per cent, while maintaining an average life expectancy of 79 years, two years less than Canada.

The candidates shared similar feelings regarding Canada’s justice system, which they felt was too lenient. Many of the candidates voiced support for mandatory minimum sentences as, a staple of former Prime Minister Harper’s government which were in part struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

“We need sometimes to tell the Supreme Court ‘you’re wrong,’” said Steven Blaney.

Several of the other candidates spoke similarly, attacking the judicial branch of government who they feel is reaching too far into the territory of the legislature.

“We must have judges on the Supreme Court who will respect the sovereignty of Parliament,” said Bernier, who vowed that he would ensure the next judge admitted to the Supreme Court would only interpret legislation, not create it.

While the candidates were divided on many issues, they were united in the condemnations of the Trudeau government, with some of them blaming Nova Scotia’s loss of over 10 000 jobs in 2016 on the Prime Minister.

“[Trudeau[ is not one of us. He is not one of you. And he definitely doesn’t think about you when he makes decisions,” said Lisa Raitt in her closing statement to particularly vigorous applause from the crowd.

The candidates avoided speaking of U.S. President Donald Trump, or the increasingly fragile relationship between the U.S. and Canada, preferring to stick to the more comfortable conversational territory of punishing criminals and improving the economy.

The race is still early and without enough reliable polling data it is difficult to see where each candidate stands with supporters. However, it’s safe to say that many of the 14 current candidates having a reasonable chance at winning the party’s leadership. Candidates to specifically watch for up until the May 27 election date  include Maxime Bernier, Lisa Raitt, Kevin O’Leary, Michael Chong, and Kellie Leitch.

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