HALIFAX – The crowd of more experienced contenders for the federal Conservative leadership set its sights on Kevin O’Leary right out of the gate Saturday as the reality-TV star and aspiring politician made his debate debut in Halifax.
MPs Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer were among those who took early digs at O’Leary, accusing the Boston-based businessman of flip-flopping on the Liberal government’s carbon pricing plan out of political expediency.
Scheer make light of O’Leary’s musings about jailing businesses that refuse to reduce emissions by 30 per cent over 20 years.
“I just want to put on the record right now that not only am I opposed to a carbon tax, I’m opposed to a carbon jail,” the former House of Commons Speaker said to laughter from the audience.
WATCH: Kellie Leitch calls O’Leary a ‘non-conservative’ at leadership debate
In her opening salvo, Ontario MP Kellie Leitch, sitting at O’Leary’s left elbow, made a point of “welcoming” him to the Conservative party and took a dig at his lack of party bona fides.
“There have been some news stories recently about non-Conservatives joining the party to stop me from leader,” a spirited Leitch joked.
“I just never expected to be sitting beside one of them.”
O’Leary, however, played it cool, refusing to rise to the bait of his rivals and instead focusing on issues that play to his background: fostering job creation and economic growth.
Businesses need “rich soil to plant the seed” in order to grow and flourish, something he said doesn’t happen much in Atlantic Canada these days.
“You can’t even grow a weed here any more,” said O’Leary, whose candidacy has been compared to the unlikely political success of U.S. President Donald Trump.
“It’s a disaster.”
Capital is fluid, he added – “It goes to the place of least resistance and most opportunity.”
WATCH: Kevin O’Leary slams PM after GM job cuts saying he ‘didn’t pivot’ with Trump election
O’Leary only formally joined the competition after the last leadership debate, his timing an effort to avoid making his debut during a French-only event – despite having been born in Quebec, he speaks little of that language.
There’s no denying, however, that his campaign has financial firepower.
O’Leary’s campaign claims to have signed up 9,000 members and raised $300,000 in the first 10 days he was in the race. It took Leitch, whose focus on immigration reform has also elicited comparisons to Trump, three months to raise that much.
The debate was moderated by Rob Moore, a former Tory MP who serves as the federal party’s shadow critic for Atlantic issues despite losing his House of Commons seat in 2015, when the Conservatives were wiped out in eastern Canada.
Rebuilding the party’s support there is seen as crucial for the party. Two leadership candidates – O’Toole and Lisa Raitt – have both played up their East Coast roots in launching their respective leadership bids.
Raitt has also been one of the most outspoken critics of O’Leary’s decision to join the race.
Well before he officially declared himself in the race, she launched a website specifically to highlight what she considers reasons he’s wrong for the party and for the country.
Raitt has also come out strongly against Leitch, whose contentious policy of screening immigrants for “Canadian values” was back in the news this past week. A banner listing the names of the Quebec mosque victims was draped over her constituency office with a call for her to resign.