Conservative leadership contenders spend more time agreeing than debating in Moncton, N.B.

The second official debate in the Conservative Party's leadership race brought more laughs than sparring to Moncton, N.B., Tuesday evening. But three candidates found themselves on the defensive amid recent controversies.

Candidates discuss job creation in Atlantic Canada, agree on economic solutions - but a few attacks surface

Kellie Leitch (centre), surrounded by fellow candidates Andrew Scheer (left) and Brad Trost (right) at the Conservative leadership debate in Moncton Tuesday evening, continued to draw fire for her views, but she repeated her claim that two-thirds of Canadians agree with her and said other candidates are intimidated by the media. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The second official debate in the Conservative Party's leadership race brought more laughs than sparring to Moncton, N.B., Tuesday evening, as the fourteen candidates now in the race found far more to agree on than debate.

Billed as the first bilingual debate among the five the party is organizing, the mostly good-natured forum saw anglophone candidates trying out sometimes halting French in an effort to broaden their appeal.

The debate returned again and again to the issue of job creation in Atlantic Canada, with candidates offering similar economic development and tax cutting policies and saving their main attacks for Justin Trudeau's Liberal government.

But some candidates did take a few shots at the approach being taken by Kellie Leitch, who stuck by her advocacy of screening immigrants for Canadian values.

Maxime Bernier used his one rebuttal of the debate to say that Canadians do not need Leitch's "karaoke version of Donald Trump."

"It is not authentic," he told reporters in scrums at the end of the event, "and I think our members want us to be authentic."

Bernier says Leitch is 'karaoke version' of Trump

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Conservative leadership hopeful calls out Kellie Leitch over immigration

Deepak Obhrai, as he has in the past, said Conservatives must guard against extremism in all forms.

"Our country is built on standing up for the human rights of everyone," he said. "This is our core principle."

Many of my colleagues on this stage I know are intimidated by the media.- Kellie Leitch

Michael Chong also echoed his earlier criticisms of Leitch's team.

"They insist that it's not race-baiting or anti-immigrant, but just yesterday, their campaign was endorsed by a white supremacist group called the Council of European Canadians," Chong said.

Leitch had the very last word of the debate, using a rebuttal to the final question to deny her platform was "racist, or xenophobic or anti-immigrant." She repeated a claim she's made before that two-thirds of Canadians want to have this discussion.

"Every country in the world is having this discussion. And just because the media and the elites don't want to have this discussion doesn't mean we should be afraid of it," she said.

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Conservative leadership hopeful says Canadians want to talk about it

"Many of my colleagues on this stage I know are intimidated by the media but I am going to continue to talk about this because this is common sense, this is what Canadians want to talk about," she said, prompting mild applause in the room.

Take 'Lock her up' chant 'seriously': Trost

Chong used his final answer to a question about engaging younger Canadians in the party to voice harsh words for Chris Alexander as well, who he says "stood idly by" while protesters were chanting to lock up the democratically elected premier of Alberta

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Speaking to reporters later, Chong called the chant "undemocratic."

Alexander told reporters after the debate that Chong was misrepresenting things — as the only leadership candidate who supports a carbon tax, he has reason to want to distance himself from what happened at that rally.

"Let's be honest: he wouldn't have been very popular there," Alexander said.

Alexander said he was proud to be at the rally to express solidarity with Albertans who oppose carbon taxes and have lost their jobs in the oil industry.

Brad Trost, who had expressed support for the chant on Twitter, told reporters after the debate that he felt people were just speaking "figuratively" and he felt the need to express his solidarity with people who feel no one is listening to them.

"I'm not arguing that she should be literally put in jail," the Saskatchewan MP said. "I'm saying that these people need to be taken seriously. They should not be talked down."

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"Everyone has an Uncle Joe that talks like that at the kitchen table. We shouldn't take it too ... literally, but we should take it seriously because people are very frustrated about this."

Polite applause, no clear winner

Candidates fielded questions — and broadly agreed — on a wide range of topics, such as preventing crime, supporting the Energy East pipeline, respecting provincial jurisdiction over health care and the need for Conservatives to remain united.

One question focused on the aging population in Atlantic Canada, and the ability of its small workforce to support it, while young people need to leave to find work elsewhere. 

While candidates mostly agreed on the need for encouraging immigration and finding new ways to create jobs to encourage young people to stay, Chong also advocated an enhanced working income tax benefit, which he said would provide more incentive for older Canadians to keep working.

Lisa Raitt said it made sense when Stephen Harper's previous Conservative government increased the retirement age to 67, although she knows it can be hard. She said it's important for seniors to stay active and she'd encourage them to remain in the workplace.

Several candidates took a light approach to the questioning, joking about the number of kids and dogs they have in discussing how they'd boost economic growth.

During an earlier question, Steven Blaney surprised everyone and prompted a few laughs when he pulled out a prop to express his enthusiasm for more nuclear energy production in Canada.

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Organizers said about 300 people attended the event at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Moncton. The crowd applauded briefly only occasionally, with no outbursts of loud enthusiasm for any candidate in particular.

Most listened silently as candidates took turns responding briefly to a series of eight questions, four of which were drawn from party members in attendance, moderator Monica Barley said. After, at least one told CBC News that the debate didn't really help her make up her mind.

Next debate in French

The first debate organized by the party last month in Saskatoon was held only in English. The Moncton debate showed the field making a noticeable effort in French, with varying results.

Bernier, who as a francophone has been adamant that the next leader of his party must speak decent French, said that it's important that the party have a leader who can debate Trudeau in both languages in 2019.

The party is hosting a total of five debates during the leadership race, with the next, a French debate, set for Quebec City on Jan.17.

Tuesday's debate was the first opportunity to see how the two latest entrants to the race — former MP Pierre Lemieux from eastern Ontario and Vancouver businessman Rick Peterson — stack up against the 12 other contenders who first debated last month.

Peterson set himself apart by advocating a total elimination of corporate income tax in Canada, something he said would be the "greatest reform the country has ever seen" — adding 10 per cent growth to Canada's gross domestic product, the equivalent of doubling Atlantic Canada's economy every year, he told the crowd.

Other contenders could enter the race before late February, including businessman Kevin O'Leary, who is not interested in learning French.

The 14 now in the race are:

  • Chris Alexander.
  • Maxime Bernier.
  • Steven Blaney.
  • Michael Chong.
  • Kellie Leitch.
  • Pierre Lemieux.
  • Dan Lindsay.
  • Deepak Obhrai.
  • Erin O'Toole.
  • Rick Peterson.
  • Lisa Raitt.
  • Andrew Saxton.
  • Andrew Scheer.
  • Brad Trost.

Conservatives will pick their next leader next May 27, using a ranked ballot system. Anyone interested in voting must purchase a party membership before March 28.

Follow @cath_cullen on Twitter for photos and on-the-ground insight on Tuesday evening's debate.

With files from Catherine Cullen