Conservative leadership hopeful Scott Aitchison says both his party and the governing Liberals have been guilty of trying to divide Canadians for personal gain.
And if his longshot candidacy to lead the party into the next election succeeds, he’s promising a “new approach.”
Read more: Jean Charest says leaders must listen to health experts on lifting federal COVID-19 mandates
Speaking to The West Block guest host David Akin, Aitchison said that people — both inside his party and the broader voting public — “recognize that Ottawa is not working.”
“It’s … divisive, and the rhetoric, it’s all about division in Ottawa. And I think Canadians have had enough of that,” Aitchison said.
“I think both parties are guilty of using division and differences of opinion among Canadians to divide us, whether it’s differences of opinion or differences of where we live. East versus west, urban versus rural. There’s no shortage of it on all sides of the aisle, and I think that Canadians have had enough of it.”
Aitchison was touching on an undercurrent of the party’s increasingly crowded 2022 leadership race: how the Conservative party wants to present themselves to Canadians after three straight general election losses, and a failure to secure the kind of suburban and exurban ridings that gave Stephen Harper a majority in 2015.
On the one hand, you have the pugilistic Pierre Poilievre — the presumed frontrunner in the race — who has never shied away from a political scrap. Poilievre’s team has already taken several shots at rivals Jean Charest and Patrick Brown in the early days of the race.
On the other side, Charest and Brown have tooled their messaging more around unity — although Brown has had some choice words, both directly and indirectly, about Poilievre’s style of politics.
Aitchison appeared to position himself more in the latter camp.
“I think we have to demonstrate that we as conservatives, we can be trusted, that we have the character and not just the policies, but the character and the courage to stick to our convictions and to speak to the folks that live in these suburban and urban ridings, and to make sure that we’re addressing the concerns that they have as well,” Aitchison told Aikin.
“And I think that the only way we can do that is by being united as a party and making sure that our message is clear and consistent and engaging with every community across this country.”
Aitchison opposes carbon tax, but says it shouldn’t be a “purity test”
Aitchison said he opposes the federal price on carbon, set to increase in those provinces that don’t have equivalent climate policies on April 1.
But he said the issue — which hastened deposed leader Erin O’Toole’s departure, and will be a central issue in the current leadership — shouldn’t be a “purity test.”
“I think that a purity test is kind of a silly thing, and I think the labels are kind of silly as well. I think it’s important for us to be principled conservatives,” Aitchison said.
Aitchison said his opposition to carbon taxes doesn’t stem from it being “politically expedient” or mean that he does not “believe that climate change is a real, serious threat.”
“I just fundamentally, I represent people in this area that can’t afford to put food on the table and heat their homes. So it’s an added expense that Canadians can’t afford, particularly the most vulnerable in our society,” Aitchison said.
The Conservatives’ 2020 campaign was also thrown off message after O’Toole was forced to clarify his position on gun control — a favourite wedge deployed effectively by the Liberal government.
Aitchison called it a “classic example” of the Liberals attempting to demonize their political opponents, but acknowledged there are significant concerns about rising gun crime rates in Canadian cities.
“But we know from chiefs of police and from boots on the ground that these guns that are being used in these heinous crimes are generally guns smuggled from across the border,” Aitchison said.
“We need to invest more in protecting our borders. We need to invest more in lifting up people that are struggling to get out of these communities that are struggling. We need to provide hope for young people. When a young person finds that the only hope they have is to join a gang? We’ve failed that young person.”
In addition to Poilievre, Charest, Brown and now Aitchison, social conservative standard bearer Leslyn Lewis and independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber have announced their intensions to make a leadership bid.
Candidates have until April 19 to join the race, and until June 3 to sign up members to support their bid.
The next Conservative leaders is expected to be announced on Sept. 10.