Kellie Leitch wasnât wasting any time.
âI have common interests with Mr. Trump,â declared the Conservative Member of Parliament for the Ontario riding of Simcoe-Grey on Nov. 9, at the party’s first leadership debate before a vote in May.
She was referring to United States president-elect Donald Trump, who won the U.S. presidential election the night before in a staggering upset, at least according to pundits who had largely portrayed him as a long shot. The Republican candidate ran a campaign based in part on an uncompromisingly hardline stance on immigration, promising to build a wall on the Mexican border and indefinitely shut out Muslims from the country.
For months, Ms. Leitchâs bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party has been based on her controversial policy proposal that immigrants should be screened for âCanadian valuesâ and only in âface-to-face interviewsâ with immigration officials.
Soon after the first of five leadership debates got underway, with 12 candidates battling it out on stage in Saskatoon, it was clear Ms. Leitch sees her idea of screening as in line with the views of Americaâs next president.
Over and over she sought to tie herself to Mr. Trump. âMr. Trump and I have a few things in common,â she said at another point in the debate. âWe have some common ideas,â she repeated another time. She wonât be âbulliedâ into political correctness, she said, echoing a common sentiment among Mr. Trumpâs supporters. She sought to portray herself as in touch with the grassroots Conservative Party membership rather than elites.
After the debate, she told reporters that though she agrees with Mr. Trump in some respects that she was not endorsing him, and disagreed with his thoughts, for instance, on people with disabilities and women. Mr. Trump has been criticized for appearing to mock a reporter who is disabled and for making offensive comments about women.
Ms. Leitch’s efforts in the debate were attacked by Michael Chong, the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.
âIâm the kid of immigrant parents,â Mr. Chong said, âso I understand the immigrant experience.â On a question about the topic, he said the party should âquit playing politics with this issue.â
Some candidates made sure to keep their position firmly in the middle of the road. Andrew Scheer, the MP for Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask. and the former House speaker, said Canada has economic needs and a problem with an aging society. âWe need to arrive at numbers based on logic and facts and evidence,â he said.
âWe need immigration,â said Andrew Saxton, a former MP for North Vancouver and former parliamentary secretary to the finance minister, but âwe need the right kind of immigration.â
In another standout moment, the Alberta MP for Calgary Forest Lawn, Deepak Obhrai, who has been elected to the House of Commons continuously for longer than any of his caucus colleagues, also raised his own experience to address the issue of immigration.
âLet me talk about the elephant in the room,â said Mr. Obhrai, first elected in 1997. Canada has no room for Sharia law, he said, referring to the body of Islamic law banned in 2006 in Ontario for family law arbitration, but which still drives some conservative debates today. But wearing the niqabâa hotly contested issue during the 2015 Canadian federal electionâis okay, he said.
Throughout the debate, the moderator posed many straightforward questions for conservatives to answer: their stances on interprovincial free trade, for example, or their support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a carbon tax, or building pipelines.
Most on stage agreed with one another on these topics: support for free trade, TPP, and pipelines, and opposition to a carbon tax. One outlier was Brad Trost, the MP for Saskatoon-University, Sask. who said âthe TPP is dead.â He later explained to reporters that itâs dead because thereâs not enough support for it in Washington, and thatâs crucial to the deal being implemented by all countries that negotiated it.
Immigration and agricultural trade policy were two areas where there were clear differences on stage.
Steven Blaney, the MP for Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-LĂ©vis, Que. and the former public safety minister under former prime minister Stephen Harperâs government, took perhaps the closest stance to Ms. Leitch on immigration.
âThe Liberals have a big problem: they are obsessed with numbers,â said Mr. Blaney, referring to the Liberal governmentâs effort to boost immigrants and refugees admitted to Canada.
Mr. Blaney also took issue with the MP for Beauce, Que., Maxime Bernier, who is running on a libertarian platform that involves privatizing Canada Post and airports, as well as getting rid of Canadaâs broadcasting regulator, and ending the system of supply management of dairy, poultry, and eggs.
âIâm the only candidate hereâ who believes in free trade in agriculture, said Mr. Bernier, including abolishing supply management.
âMaxime, your plan is a disaster blinded by ideology,â Mr. Blaney shot back.
Supply management is a hot topic especially in their common province, Quebec, where there are many farmers from supply-managed sectors.
Other sections of the debate dealt with economic issues. Many candidates like Mr. Chong, Mr. Blaney, and Chris Alexander, a former diplomat and immigration minister, were in favour of lowering taxes and freezing federal spending.
Mr. Chong in particular pushed a large income tax cut of $14-billion or 10 per cent, according to his statement, as well as cutting corporate taxes. Mr. Alexander said there would be an âimmediate freeze on spending.â
Others said they would reduce red tape. âThereâs lots of rules and regulationsâ that prevent Canadian workers from working across the country, said Milton, Ont. MP and former transport minister Lisa Raitt. âI will cap government spending,â said Ms. Leitch.
But the debate couldnât seem to get away from Mr. Trumpâs victory. A question about how Canada can work with the United States was conducted under the shadow of the president-elect.
âItâs a relationship like a big brother and a little brother: sometimes you don’t get along but you’re still part of the same family,â said Mr. Saxton.
The Hill Times