Conservatives' final leadership debate sees 13 candidates fight to stand out

Conservative leadership hopefuls enter last debate before vote — without Kevin O'Leary

The remaining 13 candidates in the race to become the next permanent leader of the Conservative Party took the stage in Toronto Wednesday in the last, and sometimes heated, debate before the May leadership vote.

Hours before the start of the bilingual debate, reality star and businessman Kevin O'Leary announced he was leaving the race because, he said, he would not be able to win enough seats in Quebec to unseat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the next election.

While mostly a rehash of previous debates, the evening saw some spirited exchanges on key policy proposals.

The ideas that sparked the most heated debate included Michael Chong's pitch to impose a national carbon tax, Kellie Leitch's immigration reforms and Maxime Bernier's pledge to scrap supply management in the dairy industry.

For the first half of the debate the candidates were randomly drawn into three groups. Each candidate was given one minute to respond to a question and two 30-second rebuttals.

In the first group Deepak Obhrai, Brad Trost, Steven Blaney, Lisa Raitt and Andrew Saxton were asked why they wanted the job of leader.

Obhrai said he had worked hard to bring new Canadians into the party and that going forward that effort had to be continued if Conservatives were going to return to power.

"Folks, we are going nowhere if we do not have the big blue boat," he said.

Attacking Leitch on immigration

Leitch reiterated her stance on immigration, saying again that she would require all newcomers to take part in a face-to-face interview with immigration officials.

The Ontario MP took criticism from her opponents for another of her proposals — to make newcomers take a Canadian values test before they are granted citizenship  —  even though she did not mention the test specifically Wednesday during the debate.

"While I have a lot of respect for Kellie Leitch, I don't have a lot of respect for the notion of making new Canadians write a test when they come in," said Raitt, who represents a riding in the Greater Toronto area.

"When I take my son to basketball and I see a diverse sea of parents I don't want them to think that I expect them because I am a Conservative to write a test to tell me how Canadian they are."

Rick Peterson picked up where Raitt left off, telling the audience that what they heard from Leitch on immigration and values does not represent everybody in the Conservative Party.

Balancing the budget

When Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer, Leitch  and Peterson were grouped together, they were asked by the moderator what they believed was the single biggest thing Trudeau has done to hurt Canadians since being elected.

Leitch said Trudeau had "misled" Canada on every account. The leadership hopeful said she had a plan for the economy that would reduce the debt, balance the budget, and would ensure that public servant salaries were the same as the private sector.

Peterson launched an attack on Bernier, saying that while the current front-runner had some had some good private sector ideas, he had never actually had to meet payroll.

Bernier told Peterson to read his resume because Bernier worked in the financial industry in Montreal for years and was prepared to bring that experience to government.

Scheer tried to answer the question directly, saying it was the "toughest question" he had to answer during the campaign because Trudeau had done so many things to hurt the country including "sleepwalking into a trade war" with the U.S. and running up the deficit.

Against a carbon tax

The third grouping included Pierre Lemieux, Michael Chong, Chris Alexander and Erin O'Toole.

Chong, who began by speaking in French, pitched his plan to cut $18 billion in taxes from his first budget, which was well received by the audience, but when Chong shifted to his proposal to impose a national carbon tax he opened himself up for attack.

Chong, however, stood by his carbon tax proposal saying, that former prime minister Stephen Harper had a climate policy to put a price on carbon in a cap-and-trade system, and unless the Conservatives had a "credible environment policy" at the next election they would never beat the Liberals.

Lemieux was quick to challenge Chong's carbon tax playing, saying that if he is elected leader, and then prime minister, he would repeal any national carbon tax.

O'Toole said he would work with big business and craft regulations that would address climate change but would not jump on board with a carbon tax.

Those attacks continued in the latter half of the debate with Obhrai who said it was not Conservative minded to impose new taxes on Canadians.

Alexander also said Canada could still protect the environment without a carbon tax.

The final pitch

During the final section of the debate, all 13 candidates took the stage at once to make their leadership pitches to the audience, with each candidate getting four 30-second rebuttals.

Bernier said the Conservative party had to "be ourselves" and speak about their values: freedom, responsibility, fairness and respect and do so with passion and conviction

He promised to cut $30 billion in taxes each year, which would include a 15 per cent flat income tax rate and an end to corporate welfare.

As the clock ran down, Bernier was assailed for pledging to scrap supply management in the dairy industry.

O'Toole took aim at a public letter from Bernier praising Trump's attacks on supply management in the dairy industry, saying you can't "sit on the same side of the table" as the people you are negotiating with.