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Canadian Conservative Leadership Hopefuls Clash In Debate

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David Krayden Ottawa Bureau Chief

It may be too early for an “Anybody But O’Leary” campaign to solidify in the  Conservative Party of Canada leadership race, but Kevin O’Leary was frequently on his own to face the criticism of his Conservative rivals during Friday’s debate.

It was a pivotal debate because the event was the centerpiece of the Manning Centre Conference — an annual gathering of conservative politicians, academics, commentators and grassroots supporters that has become Canada’s answer to CPAC. The 13 other candidates in the contest had many areas of contention but most took turns in criticizing O’Leary — the “Shark Tank” star and successful businessman who is as well-know in the United States as he is in Canada.

O’Leary’s home in Boston and extensive employment in the U.S. are becoming issues in the campaign.

He was introduced by debate moderator Tom Clark — a veteran television journalist — as “Mr. Wonderful” (his Shark Tank nickname). O’Leary was encouraged by Saskatchewan Member of Parliament (MP) and former House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to “spend more time in Canada,” and admonished by several other leadership candidates for refusing to commit to running for a seat in Parliament if he becomes Conservative leader, an office that would also make him leader of the official opposition.

O’Leary largely avoided hitting back at his colleagues, choosing instead to save his criticism and one-liners for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom he joked should be “phased-out” by Canadians — in reference to Trudeau’s gaffe during a town hall appearance when he suggested the Alberta oil sands development that’s potentially holding more crude oil than Saudi Arabia’s reserves should be phased out. He also accused Trudeau of creating an economic “malaise” that is creating an exodus of Canadian talent and expertise to the U.S., where they believe their hard work will be rewarded more and taxed less.

“Canada has become a can’t do country under Justin Trudeau,” O’Leary said.  “And that’s tragic: because there is so much that we can do if we just allow the private sector to develop jobs.”

But O’Leary may have had his best moment when he faced down Ontario MP Michael Chong, who again argued for a “revenue neutral” carbon tax that he claimed would effectively contain greenhouse gas emissions. The highly-charged audience could not contain their anger at Chong, loudly booing him.

“When I hear a politician talking about a ‘revenue neutral’ carbon tax,” he said, “I know I’m hearing BS.”

Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, a high-profile foreign affairs minister in the previous Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, is considered to be either slightly behind or barely ahead of O’Leary with committed party members. In response to how Canada-U.S. relations should be assessed in the “era of Donald Trump,” Bernier said Canada’s economic renewal was essential in maintaining a good relationship with its largest trading partner, something he said could achieve by “lowering taxes on every entrepreneur and abolishing the capital gains tax.”

He also promised to eliminate marketing boards for farmers, something he says will be part of renegotiating NAFTA. “Canada will be the best place on earth to do business,” he said.

Ontario MP and former labor minister Kellie Leitch may have stolen the show with her impassioned plea for “Canadian values” given the current backdrop of a ballooning refugee crisis as illegals stream across the border and “Islamophobia” hysteria threatening to criminalize criticism of Muslim extremists.

“Only about one in 10 new immigrants were interviewed by an immigration officer officer last year. The Senate thinks that’s a problem. The immigration department thinks that’s a problem. I’ll fix that problem and ensure that new Canadians not only understand our values but also share them. We are successful when we are not afraid to talk about conservative policies,” she said.

Conservative Party members will elect a new leader in three months.

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