OTTAWA – Candidates for leadership of the federal Conservative party went four rounds Friday in a debate aimed at providing an opportunity for a deep dive into policy.
But the cut-and-thrust of politics remained on display even as the format of having 14 people on stage at once was dissolved into smaller groups of candidates debating specific policy themes, one group at a time.
The debate at the Manning Conference saw the contenders appear before a crowd of the conservative movement’s most ardent advocates and activists, self-described politics junkies eager to shell out the cash to spend a weekend debating ideology and brushing up on political marketing targets.
So when Deepak Obhrai lashed out at Kevin O’Leary’s apparent lack of knowledge over how transfer payments are doled out to the provinces, raucous cheering ensured.
“Mr. O’Leary, you need to know the Constitution of Canada,” Obhrai said.
And equally raucous boos greeted candidate Michael Chong’s defence of a carbon tax as the way forward for environment policy, a controversial position within party circles.
Unlike the official debates organized by the party, or the informal ones that have been organized by MPs and riding associations, the Manning conference saw candidates eager to woo the party’s influencers more than the rank and file.
Proving their conservative credentials was key and O’Leary — who many have grumbled isn’t a true conservative — made sure to invoke the name of a conservative many hold dear, Sir John A. Macdonald. He likened the railways built by Canada’s first prime minister to the pipelines of today.
But O’Leary took punches for how much time he’s spent outside the country; members of Lisa Raitt’s team paraded a person in an Uncle Sam outfit with a massive O’Leary cardboard face around the lobby ahead of the debate.
O’Leary wasn’t the only focus for criticism.
In a group made up of Erin O’Toole, Chris Alexander, Andrew Saxton and Kellie Leitch, Leitch became the target.
While her policies on screening would-be immigrants for “Canadian values” have been a central and controversial part of the leadership contest, her rivals pounced on her in a debate on health policy.
O’Toole pressed her on why she hadn’t put out a plan, Leitch replied that she’s done a ton of research on the issue and that her experience at business school and as a physician make her uniquely qualified to put forward ideas.
“I think the problems are not too difficult for mere mortals to understand,” he said, to cheers.