What The Conservative Candidates Say

Last week’s article identified seven leading candidates for the Conservative Party leadership. Each of them agreed to be interviewed this week, and were generous with their time. With difficulty, those interviews have been greatly condensed; nevertheless, today’s article is twice the normal length.

Lisa Raitt was born in Sydney and raised by her grandparents, the youngest of seven children. She is good at being pleasant.

She feels that her experience both in a senior role at the Toronto Port Authority and in three different cabinet positions is an asset. She is the only mother in the race. She admired Harper’s decisiveness and integrity.

She advocates tax cuts that would cost $9 billion a year. The biggest is a promise that “Nobody will pay income tax on the first $15,000 of income.” Her plan to balance the budget does not have a specified time period, but she claims to be a fiscal hawk.

Surprisingly, for a Conservative, she favours exploring some form of national pharmacare, but does not have a clear idea of the cost. She also wants to see federal initiatives in certain disease areas.

She freely acknowledges that her heart sometimes overrules her head. She appears to be at the left end of the group of candidates, but disagrees with that assessment.

Michael Chong is cerebral, committed, and more principled than pragmatic.

He has fought hard to liberate MPs from fealty to their party leaders. He wants to remove their power to veto candidates.

Alone among the candidates he favours a carbon tax, although not of the kind that the Liberals are implementing. He will eliminate “green” regulations, programs, funds, and indirect subsidies.

He will make the tax revenue-neutral by using the proceeds to reduce personal income taxes, and double the Working Income Tax Benefit for low income workers. He estimates that it will take five years to bring the budget into balance, and questions the credibility of those who promise to do it in two.

He feels that business lending would become easier if CMHC was privatized, because government-guaranteed house loans are soaking up banks’ lending capacity. That certainly would make mortgages more expensive; it is doubtful that it will help businesses.

He argues that the party needs a big change from the status quo and that he is the way to achieve it.

Erin O’Toole is well seasoned, with experience in the military, the corporate world, as an MP, and in cabinet. He feels that he made a good start at turning things around during his ten months as Minister of Veteran Affairs.

He hopes that the party will unite around whoever is chosen, but feels there are risks with some candidates. He admires the way Stephen Harper brought the factions of the party together, but feels that more active communication on some policy issues would have been better.

He has the most extensive and detailed policy positions.

He wants to seek free trade agreements with the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. He acknowledges the contradiction between supporting both supply management and expanded free trade.

He would eliminate the carbon tax, but would seek to phase out coal as a source for power generation.

He worries about unemployment and underemployment among young people, and a potential brain drain to the south of graduates with valuable skills. His “kickstart” program would provide big tax incentives for staying here. It is not clear that the benefit would match the cost.

He expects that balancing the budget will take four years.

Maxime Bernier is a full contact libertarian. Many of his ideas conflict with many traditional political compromises:

  1. Phase out supply management with compensation to quota holders
  2. Privatize Canada Post and eliminate its monopoly
  3. Revise equalization formula so that it stops discouraging provinces from developing resources, and is possible for voters to understand
  4. Exclude the CRTC from telecoms competition policy and welcome new foreign players
  5. Allow private sector participation in health delivery
  6. Ask the Supreme Court to end interprovincial trade barriers based on section 121 of the constitution
  7. Replace health transfers to provinces with a transfer of tax points so that they are totally accountable for health care
  8. End corporate welfare (think General Motors, Bombardier, also regional agencies like ACOA). Use the savings of $5-$8 billion per year to abolish capital gains taxes and reduce corporate income tax rates from 15% to 10%.

Many of those ideas are worthy of debate, though some would not emerge unscathed. He has put a lot of thought into them, but not how to pay for his tax cuts. He plans to find savings to balance the budget in two years.

Kevin O’Leary is passionate, aggressive, assertive, and not humble. His strategy is to run as an outsider. He makes a point of not playing by the rules—don’t show up for debates, don’t bother to learn French.

He despises Trudeau’s government, and those of many provinces: “Mediocre career politicians are in charge of our economy.”

His first policy document was a speech to the Empire Club in Toronto on April 6th. It focused on his strategy for accelerating economic growth as a response to a “black hole of debt.”

He is loose with facts; asserting, for example, that there have been “huge increases in personal income tax” when they have gone down for most people, and that “Canada’s growth rate is stalled at 1%”. When private sector forecasters canvassed for the federal budget had it just under 2%, and the Bank of Canada has just increased its current forecast to 2.6%.

His speech describes an ambitious program to increase economic growth to 3%. It includes tax cuts for corporations and investors, strong support for immigration, and aggressive development of resources, including oil and gas.

He will threaten provinces with cuts to equalization payments and health transfers if they do not support his economic policies.

He has not addressed the question of how or when his program will result in budget surpluses and debt reduction.

Andrew Scheer, father of five, was born in 1979 and is the youngest of the seven Candidates. He has spent his entire adult life in the political realm. He has never been in Cabinet, but was Speaker of the House from 2011-2015.

He feels that right wing politicians sometimes err by stressing the mechanics of change without telling a positive story about benefits. For example, should the story be about getting people off welfare or into the workforce?

He wants to get pipelines built to create jobs and reduce Canada’s dependency on foreign oil. He wants Canada to be more supportive of Ukraine and other Eastern European nations, and to seek closer ties with India and other Asian democracies.

His tax reductions would include deductions for parents using independent schools, which some voters might view as a gift to the rich. He wants to eliminate handouts to large corporations. But he is not particularly doctrinaire about tax reductions or how the deficit should be eliminated.

He wants to eliminate interprovincial barriers and would reinstitute accountability requirements for First Nations receiving federal funds.

He argues that the way he approaches issues and builds support for them is more important than the details of any policy.

Kellie Leitch is a physician with specialist training in pediatric orthopedics. Noting that it would be hard to have a distinctive policy on economic growth or government finances, she proposed a “Canadian Values Test” to be administered in face to face interviews (“Madam you will have to remove your niqab”) with potential newcomers. It got lots of attention.

Superficially, these are harmless: Equal opportunity, hard work, helping others, generosity, freedom, and tolerance. But they seem to be part of a faith-based agenda. She wants priority to be given to Syrian and other refugees from at-risk religious minorities, including Christians.

Her policies have a law and order bias. She wants pepper spray and mace to be legalized so women can carry them for self-defense. Her natural resources policy is primarily about prosecuting those who sabotage resource development. She wants to prohibit foreigners from subsidizing local environmental activists. She wants to reinstitute visas for Mexicans. She would undo the legalization of marijuana.

Claiming that she is outdoing Bernier, she wants to dismantle the CBC. Beyond that, her cost savings ideas are a familiar list: establish caps, identify and reduce waste, control public sector pay and benefits.

Conclusion: There are a lot of stimulating ideas in these platforms. They remind us that there are many differing perspectives within this group, as there are within any caucus.

On fiscal matters, the policy positions are generally weak. Balancing the budget will require dealing with the Liberal deficits exceeding $20 billion, plus the cost of tax cut promises ranging from $9 billion for Raitt to far more for Bernier and O’Leary.

Federal expenses—excluding transfers to persons or provinces and debt servicing—are $87 billion, of which defense and public safety are close to $40 billion. It is hard to visualize getting savings of $30 billion out of that, let alone much more. Perhaps the Liberals have made it fashionable to produce irresponsible positions on fiscal management.

Conservative members should consider two questions when casting their ballots.

First, who can provide the leadership to unite the caucus around a platform? When asked what aspects of Harper they admired, some of the candidates pointed to his ability to bring together the disparate views of the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties. No one, including the leader, gets to have his or her own way on every item. Does the candidate understand that distilling an acceptable middle ground is often more important than ideological purity?

Second, who can be a credible and effective voice for what the party stands for? Who can articulate a positive and compelling vision for the country that will resonate far beyond the party’s partisan membership?

These are the core questions to be answered by members when they choose and rank candidates on their ballot.

It will be equally important to entirely exclude from their votes candidates who fail on one or both of these tests.


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