The Conservative leadership candidates have a lot in common on policy — and some interesting differences

The four candidates vying for the Conservative leadership will be on stage tonight for the only English-language debate of this campaign.

For the two frontrunners — former cabinet ministers Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole — it’s a chance to shore up support and woo party members away from their rivals. For the relative newcomers in the race — Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis and rookie MP Derek Sloan — it’s an occasion to introduce themselves to people who will pick Andrew Scheer’s replacement.

The four contenders agree on many things — reducing the size of government, shrinking the tax burden and cracking down on crime.

All of them have been critical of the Liberal government’s firearms policy and plan to repeal much of it. MacKay has said the assault rifle ban was ripped from “a failed playbook of demonizing law-abiding firearms owners.” They also want to take a harder line on China’s involvement in the Canadian economy.

The leadership hopefuls are also generally aligned on supporting Israel, spending more on the military, reforming the Veterans Affairs department and imposing stiffer penalties on criminals while doing more to support the victims of crime.

O’Toole has said he will invoke the notwithstanding clause to impose mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. MacKay has promised to toughen parole eligibility considerations for “the most despicable and heinous crimes.”

But the four platforms are hardly carbon copies. There are some notable differences among these candidates on the three issues that have come to the forefront in this leadership race: energy and the environment, social issues and the economy in a post-pandemic world.

Energy and the environment

The Conservative Party was attacked by its rivals during the last federal election campaign for having what some called a weak climate plan — one that relied heavily on technological innovation and selling natural gas to markets abroad in the hopes that Canada could claim credit for the resulting emissions reductions.

The Liberal plan, in turn, was based on carbon taxes and putting a limit on developments that produce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Conservatives owe much of their current standing in the House of Commons to a very strong showing in Western Canada in the 2019 election — particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where oil and gas extraction is an integral part of the economy.

Scheer cast himself as an unabashed champion of the two oil-producing western provinces and rallied voters to the Conservative cause by denouncing the Liberal-imposed national carbon tax plan and items of legislation, like Bill C-69, that were seen by some as anti-oil.

Scheer also promised to build a national infrastructure corridor that could house pipelines that move oil and gas — an idea that has since been supported by this batch of leadership contenders.

O’Toole, with the support of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, has presented himself as the best candidate to pick up Scheer’s defence of western interests. Polls suggest O’Toole is performing well in those areas.

To blunt that momentum, MacKay has jumped on O’Toole’s environmental policy proposals to improve his standing among western voters in this last leg of this leadership race.

Candidates for the Conservative leadership are competing to be viewed as champions of Alberta’s energy sector. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

In the initial version of his platform, O’Toole promised to end “fossil fuel subsidies,” which he called a form of corporate welfare.

After some backlash whipped up by MacKay’s backers, O’Toole re-released his platform with the reference to subsidies missing.

While O’Toole has promised to scrap the Liberals’ national carbon tax, he has said he would support provinces that choose to enact their own carbon pricing regimes.

He also has committed to “get to net-zero emissions” in the oil and gas sector, something the Liberals also have promised to do nationally by 2050.

O’Toole has said his national environmental plan will focus on “making industry pay” through a “national industrial regulatory and pricing regime across the country.”

In response, MacKay said the platform “does not sound like it was written by someone running to be the leader of our Conservative Party.”

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Former finance minister Joe Oliver, who has been critical of the modern environmental movement and has said Canada could benefit from climate change, jumped on the O’Toole plan. In an email to MacKay supporters, Oliver said an industrial regulatory and pricing regime would be a “dangerous plan for Canada.”

“These more intrusive regulations and higher taxes would batter our energy sector, already reeling from hostile policies imposed by a Liberal government determined to transition it out of existence,” Oliver said.

O’Toole, however, has not shied away from some of his proposals, saying he can be a champion for the oil and gas industry while also enacting measures to protect the environment.

Sensitive to the criticism the party faced in the last election, O’Toole said the party needs to “present Canadians with a real plan to tackle climate change in the next election.”

“The fact that Canadians did not feel we took this issue seriously enough was a big reason why we lost the last election,” the Ontario MP said on Twitter.

MacKay’s environment plan reads much like what Scheer pitched to voters in the last election — a promise to achieve “advances in technology,” invest in “carbon sequestration” and sell Canadian natural gas around the world to displace coal as a source of energy.

“Justin Trudeau does not have a climate plan. He has a taxation plan,” MacKay said. “It is unfair to many Canadians and is fundamentally divisive to the federation. More importantly, in a vast country with a cool climate, it won’t work.”

MacKay called Trudeau’s — and O’Toole’s — plan to pursue net-zero “aspirational.” He said he will “level with Canadians” that the country might not be able to meet its Paris climate targets.

Leslyn Lewis has also borrowed from the Scheer playbook on this file, too, saying she will scrap the carbon tax, tear up Bill C-69 and encourage “green” investments and home renovations.

Derek Sloan, who has released little policy during this campaign, has promised to get rid of Bill C-69 and also C-48, the northern B.C. oil tanker ban legislation.

Social issues

MacKay, the former leader of the now-defunct Progressive Conservative party, has presented himself as a social moderate.

In 2006, he was one of only a handful of cabinet ministers to vote against his own government’s resolution to restore the traditional definition of marriage.

After the last election, MacKay said Scheer’s embrace of social conservatives — and his refusal to march at Pride — were a “stinking albatross” around the party’s neck during the campaign.

In January, MacKay was the first candidate to announce he would march in Toronto’s Pride parade this summer.

The Lewis campaign leaked an audio of MacKay asking social conservative voters, who are generally against LGBT rights and abortion, to “park those issues, for a time” because those positions will be “used against us” by the Liberals and hamper the party’s efforts to appeal to more socially moderate voters in suburban areas around the country’s big cities.

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But MacKay has faced criticism for how he has handled trans issues.

In a effort to draw a contrast between himself and O’Toole, who previously backed legislation to extend protections for trans people, MacKay said he didn’t agree with his opponent’s support for the transgender rights “bathroom bill.”

The reference to a “bathroom bill” was condemned by some as “dog-whistle terminology” because it is the language used by anti-trans advocates who claim that trans women will prey on people in washrooms if they are given certain rights.

A campaign spokesperson later said MacKay won’t use the term anymore, adding the candidate would have voted in favour of the Liberal government’s transgender rights legislation, Bill C-16, if he had been an MP in the last Parliament because his views have evolved.

O’Toole has tried actively to court social conservative voters and recently pitched for the second ballot support of those backing Lewis and Sloan in the first round of voting.

He has promised that social Conservatives would have “a seat at the table” in a Conservative Party led by him.

In a video conference call with supporters leaked to Radio-Canada earlier this week, O’Toole said that he’s concerned about the government’s proposed legislation to ban conversion therapy and another bill that would broaden access to medical aid in dying.

Conversion therapy is the pseudoscientific practice of using psychological or spiritual counselling to change the sexual orientation of someone who identifies as LGBTQ to heterosexual.

In March, the Liberals introduced legislation that would outlaw several aspects of the practice, including exposing a minor to it.

O’Toole said he has concerns about the legislation.

“It’s very important to respect the conversation between a priest and the members of their flock,” he said.

A spokesperson later said O’Toole has always been clear that “coercive, degrading actions that seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity should be banned,” and his issue is with how the Liberal bill has been crafted.

The Ontario MP also revealed he will “probably” vote against new legislation that would expand access to medical aid in dying, saying he has “a lot of uncertainty” about the practice as both a Catholic and a lawyer.

Lewis, a practising Pentecostal, has embraced the social conservative wing of the party. She’s had support from organizers who work with RightNow, an anti-abortion advocacy group.

Lewis is firmly opposed to the federal government’s push to ban conversion therapy.

Lewis has said she’s heard from parents and pastors who worry that what she calls “a talk therapy session” could be criminalized under the proposed law.

On abortion, Lewis has told her supporters that she is “pro-life, no hidden agenda.”

If elected party leader, she said, she would move to ban sex-selective abortions, criminalize coercive abortions, increase funding for pregnancy centres that counsel women about their alternatives to ending a pregnancy and end funding for international abortions through Canada’s foreign aid.

Sloan has also happily embraced the “so con” label.

While his policy playbook is relatively light in other areas, he has posted a 12-point “pro-life” plan on his website which includes a promise to enact a partial birth abortion ban, end foreign aid funding of abortion and end funding for “pro-abortion special interest groups.”

He is also promising to work with the provinces to pass legislation requiring “full disclosure” to women prior to the procedure — a measure that would require that women get an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion.

The economy post-pandemic

O’Toole and MacKay have released economic plans they say will help Canada’s economy out of the pandemic slump that has left millions unemployed.

The plans include a mix of fiscal prudence — such as O’Toole’s promise to wind down the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) — and tax incentives to restore the economy to health.

But both candidates have shied away from the more aggressive cost-cutting approach recently advocated by former prime minister Stephen Harper in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

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Instead of pushing for an early austerity drive, O’Toole and MacKay are talking about returning to balanced budgets and a more normal level of spending over time, as the country starts the slow climb out of pandemic-induced shutdowns.

The candidates have even suggested they’d extend some Liberal initiatives.

While critical of the current level of government spending, both promised to continue the Canada emergency business account (CEBA) program — which extends credit to businesses and includes a grant of up to $10,000 — for another year to help smaller businesses get through this crisis.

MacKay has suggested business operators in two of the hardest hit sectors of the economy — restaurants and tourism — should be permitted to stop charging GST to make their services more affordable for consumers who have all but abandoned them over the last three months because of physical distancing measures.

O’Toole is proposing a “new hire incentive” that would reduce the employment insurance premiums that small- and medium-sized businesses pay if they add new workers.

MacKay and O’Toole are pitching plans to restore Canada’s manufacturing base, with promises to build domestic capacity for making medical equipment so that Canada will be self-sufficient if it’s hit with another pandemic.

Canada has relied on China and the U.S. throughout the pandemic for masks and ventilators.

O’Toole said Canada needs domestic supplies of these goods so we “no longer need to rely on supply chains stretching to China to supply critical life-saving needs in future emergencies.”

MacKay has said a mix of tax cuts — such as a 100 per cent capital cost allowance write-off for equipment purchases — and programs to retrain workers for technologically advanced factories will help a manufacturing sector that was once the economic bedrock of the country’s largest province.

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