Conservative leadership candidates spar over jobs and taxes while taking aim at O'Leary

Kevin O’Leary says he feels he received a “warm welcome” in his first Conservative leadership debate, but that welcome came mostly in the form of attacks.

The TV personality and businessman was taking part in his first leadership debate

Maxime Bernier makes a point as Andrew Scheer, left, looks on at the Conservative leadership candidates' debate, in Halifax on Saturday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Kevin O'Leary says he feels he received a "warm welcome" in his first Conservative leadership debate, but that welcome came mostly in the form of attacks.

It started early in the two-hour face-off during the first question on carbon emissions. Kellie Leitch took her first opportunity at the microphone to welcome O'Leary to the race — sarcastically.

"First I'd like to welcome Kevin to the Conservative party and I'd like to welcome him back to Canada," she said hinting to questions about his past donation to the Liberal party and the amount of time O'Leary spends in the United States.

Kellie Leitch welcomes Kevin O'Leary


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'I'd like to welcome Kevin to the Conservative party and I'd like to welcome him back to Canada' 0:23

The question about carbon emissions prompted little real debate. Thirteen of the 14 candidates object to carbon taxes. Only Michael Chong is proposing a retooled taxation plan that includes a tax designed to limit emissions. He was quietly booed by a few people in the crowd while explaining his position.

The debate in Halifax was the first to feature all 14 candidates, including O'Leary, who entered the race Jan. 18.

Other candidates piled on the attacks over the course of the night. Many came with what seemed like pre-prepared shots at O'Leary.

"We are not on the Dragon's Den stage tonight," Maxime Bernier said to the crowd. "You are not applying to work for us. We are applying to work for you.

"We have a celebrity in chief," said Erin O'Toole, in an apparent reference to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "We don't beat a celebrity in chief with another celebrity in chief."

'We have a celebrity in chief,' says O'Toole


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Erin O'Toole warns against a leader with a 'a mean-spirited and negative edge' 0:39

Chong warned of choosing a candidate who "thinks he's Rambo," referring to the video O'Leary posted of himself earlier in the week shooting automatic weapons. His social media post coincided with public funerals for victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting and he later decided to remove them "out of respect" for the services.

O'Leary didn't respond directly to any of the criticisms but vowed to the party and win back people who had voted Trudeau, like his own children.

"The task is who can get these people back on side with us?" he said.

The biggest applause of the night, though, seemed to come for Cape Bretoner Lisa Raitt when she closed with a denunciation of Trudeau. She said he was not a man of his word and didn't share the public's concerns about issues including worrying about paying the mortgage.

"He is not one of us. He is not one of you. And he definitely doesn't think about you when he makes decisions."

Lisa Raitt, originally from Cape Breton, received a lot of applause after telling the crowd that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn't share many of their concerns like how to pay the mortgage. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

More protection for victims

On a question about mandatory minimum sentences for committing sexual assault, there was broad agreement that the justice system should do more to protect victims​ and punish offenders.

Steven Blaney, Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux all pushed back against decisions by the Supreme Court, arguing the court goes too far at times.

Trost said he would use the notwithstanding clause to overturn decision by "leftist judges" on matters of principle.

O'Leary said he had visited some of the "harshest" places on earth while travelling for business, and always feels grateful for the Canadian system when he returns.

"I can't criticize. I'm sorry. We're lucky," said O'Leary.

Andrew Scheer didn't agree with O'Leary's comparison.

"I don't think we should compare ourselves to countries with no rule of law and say we can't do better," he said.

Kevin O'Leary and Andrew Scheer spar over justice system


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Scheer says we shouldn't compare Canada to countries without 'rule of law' 1:28

Growth for Atlantic Canada

A question about how to support and grow Nova Scotia's economy and create jobs also provoked some intense discussion.

"Corporate taxes are insane in Atlantic Canada," said O'Leary, who promised "economic therapy motivation" to encourage provinces to get onside with his vision.

Maxime Bernier said he didn't have a plan that was specific to Atlantic Canada or any other region. He said lowering corporate taxes and income taxes would benefit all Canadians and help bring people and jobs back from other countries.

"And it's already working — Kevin is with us today," he joked, another reference to the time O'Leary spends in the United States.

Conservative leadership candidates slam Kevin O'Leary


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O'Leary shows 'horrific lack of judgement,' says Michael Chong 2:33

Raitt said companies should have to establish training for kids under a certain age, not just in skilled trades but also in office jobs such as human resources.

O'Toole mocked the way Liberal MPs from the region have responded to job losses in Atlantic Canada saying he calls the MPs "little lambs" because it has been "silence of the lambs" on major issues.

Scheer added that Atlantic Canadians didn't need a minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency who was from Mississauga.

Chong said Donald Trump's plans to reduce taxes in the U.S. was a sign that Canada should also lower taxes.

Leitch repeated her plan to cap government spending. She called for natural resource development in Atlantic Canada.

Tonight's Conservative leadership debate in Halifax was the first with the full slate of 14 candidates. (CBC )

Mosque Attack

A few candidates also took time to recognize the victims of the Ste. Foy mosque attack.

Steven Blaney, an MP in the Quebec City area called it "a heinous crime."

He also cautioned against answering hatred with hatred and said everyone must watch that their words don't fuel hate.

Rick Peterson focused his closing remarks on the previous day's funeral for three of the attack victims, which he attended. He said he heard words of passion and tolerance.

"Our party stands up and defends a system of immigration that welcomes the world and makes us all better."

Watch the full debate:


Catherine Cullen

Parliamentary Bureau

Catherine Cullen is a senior reporter covering politics and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.