Conservative leadership candidates stress unity and core values in final speeches
13 candidates take stage at Toronto convention on eve of election for Stephen Harper's successor
Thirteen candidates vying to replace Stephen Harper as permanent Conservative leader delivered their final speeches Friday night, pitching their vision for the country and urging party unity in the wake of a long and sometimes divisive campaign.
Voting will continue Saturday, but the party confirmed that 130,000 ballots have already been cast and counted. Some members told CBC News they did not receive their ballots by mail in time to return them by today's deadline.
On Saturday, the evening program begins at 5 p.m., when ballot-by-ballot results will be announced.
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The order of speakers was selected by draw.
Michael Chong was first to take to the stage at the Toronto Congress Centre, sending a message repeated by many rivals who followed him at the podium: Unite as a party and stick to core Conservative values to defeat Liberals in 2019.
After a leadership race that exposed internal policy splits in the ranks, Chong accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of revelling in "the trappings of power" but lacking the leadership skills to make Canada great.
"We have a prime minister more focused on the next tweet than on tackling runaway budget deficit," he said.
Lisa Raitt urged all candidates to rally behind the new leader. When Conservatives are united and present effective alternatives to the Liberals, they govern, she said.
"Come Monday, the race is over. Come Monday, there is only one shade of blue," she said.
Several candidates, including Chris Alexander, Rick Peterson, Steven Blaney and Andrew Saxon, spent their allotted 10 minutes on the stage recapping their policy platforms in detail, describing what they would do when they become prime minister even though the four are seen as trailing in the race.
Maxime Bernier, the presumptive front-runner of the campaign, used much of his time showing a five-minute video with images of him meeting with business leaders, constituents and supporters and the refrain "I believe in Bernier."
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Bernier praised his rivals in the race and said after the ballots are counted Saturday, Conservatives will emerge united as a competent team in Parliament and across the country.
"Altogether we led a great campaign," he said in brief, unscripted remarks after the video. "We debated ideas, conservative ideas all together. We're a very competent team."
Deepak Obhrai, who said he was impressed by the "fantastic engagement" of youth he observed during the campaign. Young Canadians are key to building a "big tent blue party," he said.
But Obhrai warned that the party has much work to do in attracting visible minority members to the fold. He said only 10 per cent of the membership is now a visible minority.
"That is an area we need to go and improve," he said.
Erin O'Toole used the podium to reject claims the party is broken or divided, and said the range of views heard during the campaign proves the party is rich in diversity and reflects the country.
He said Conservatives need an experienced, energized leader with fresh ideas to win back the trust of Canadians.
He also took some tough shots at Trudeau, saying Canada does not need a "celebrity leader," but a competent leader.
"Canadians are tired of broken Liberal promises. They are tired of the photo-ops and the platitudes," he said to loud applause. "They are tired of having a prime minister more interested in how he is viewed abroad, than how he can serve us at home."
Kellie Leitch, who took much criticism during the campaign for promising to screen newcomers for Canadian values, said promoting and protecting core values is the only way to preserve Canada's past and build its future.
She also urged party members to put aside their differences and unite to defeat Trudeau.
"Uniting in pride and support of our shared values of hard work, generosity, freedom and tolerance, together we can build the future Canadians desire for themselves and their families," she said.
Social conservative candidates also urged the party not to stifle discussion and debate over contentious issues.
Brad Trost repeated the pro-life, anti-same sex marriage messages that were central to his campaign, calling the traditional family the "building block of a truly free democratic society."
He said the party will not grow by rejecting conservative values.
"Conservatives do not win elections by becoming more liberal," he said.
Pierre Lemieux also said pro-life issues must be discussed and debated by the party. He urged the party to fight against political correctness, referencing his opposition to M-103, a contentious anti-Islamophobia motion, and C-16, a bill to protect transgender rights.
"It has to stop," he said.
Andrew Scheer said the campaign has been about who can best articulate conservative ideas and ideals to the broader base of Canadians.
"I reject the idea that in order to beat the Liberals, we need to be more like them," he said.
Party President Scott Lamb thanked outgoing interim leader Rona Ambrose for her work, and said the party is in "spectacular shape," citing the more than 250,000 members registered to vote on the leadership and pointing to strong quarterly fundraising numbers. He said the party will emerge from the leadership race stronger and united.
"The Conservative Party is strong. We're strong in the east, we're strong in the west and we're strong in the country," he said, adding the party is also strong in urban centres such as Toronto.
Caroline Mulroney, daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, and Manitoba Conservative MP Candice Bergen are acting as the weekend's masters of ceremonies.
The evening began with a dance and music routine, followed by a moment's silence for the victims of the recent attack in Manchester, U.K.
After the speeches wrapped up, party members moved to "hospitality suites" hosted by the candidates, where they mingled with other Conservatives.