Kevin O’Leary shocked Conservatives today by dropping out of the race to lead the federal party, even though he was, with Maxime Bernier, one of the acknowledged frontrunners. O’Leary threw his support to Bernier, which would seem to make the Quebec MP the prohibitive favourite to win when the ballots are counted on May 27.
However, contenders in the second tier of what is now a 13-candidate field are scrambling to try to upset Bernier. Among them are Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer and Ontario MP Erin O’Toole. And then there’s Ontario MP Michael Chong, whose advocacy of a carbon tax has made him a controversial candidate for many Tories. Chong spoke with Maclean’s about how O’Leary’s early exit changes the race.
READ MORE: Clown down: The post-O’Leary Conservatives
Q: What was your reaction when you heard that Kevin O’Leary had decided to drop out?
A: Well, quite simply, it proves the point that we’ve been saying right from Day One of the leadership race: If you can’t speak French, you cannot be Conservative party leader. And I think that eliminates a lot of the Anglophone candidates in this race, whose French is not good enough to be Conservative party leader.
Q: Simple as that.
A: Yep. In fact, Kevin O’Leary said that himself today.
Q: Do you think there’s enough time now for support to coalesce around someone other than Maxime Bernier? Obviously, you are hoping it will be you.
A: I think there is. I think that Kevin O’Leary dropping out today makes this race a very stark choice between Maxime Bernier and my campaign. This now focuses the party’s members on the stark choice that they have between Max’s vision for the country and mine.
Q: Why should they pick yours?
A: His is a vision of extreme policies that will give the Liberals the next election. Canadians will not support proposing to eliminate more than one third of all federal government program spending in order to pay for his tax cuts. It’s an extreme policy. The provincial Conservatives in Ontario tried that in the last election and handed a tired Liberal government victory.
Extreme policies like proposing to eliminate the federal government’s role in the delivery of public health care, Canadians’ most cherished social program and the most important issue for Canadians today. By eliminating the federal health transfer, and proposing to do a one time tax-point transfer from the federal government to the provinces, he’s effectively eliminating the Canada Health Act. And the five guiding principles of the Canada Health Act ensure our public, national health care system. So that is an extreme policy that I think will hand the Liberals the next election.
Q: If Maxime Bernier isn’t a good choice, why are you the best alternative? Why not, just for example, Andrew Scheer? He’s bilingual.
A: I think if you look at my plan for the country I’ve brought forward credible policies to reduce emissions. Conservatives will not win in 2019 unless we have a credible policy to tackle climate change and reduce emissions. I’m the only candidate that’s come forward with a credible plan on the environment.
I’m the only candidate that’s come forward with a credible plan for democratic reform. This is an incredibly important issue if we’re going to attract millions of Millennial voters to our party; it begins by hitting Trudeau where he’s weak, which is on his broken promise to Millennials on electoral reform.
Q: Let me ask the obvious question about your candidacy, which is about the polarizing effect of your position on pricing carbon. Doesn’t that make you a non-starter with a huge block of Conservatives, including many in Alberta and Saskatchewan? If they want a choice other than Bernier, why would they look to you?
A: I think when Conservatives actually look at my plan and understand my plan, they’ll come to support it. The challenge I’ve had in this leadership race, quite frankly, is that I’ve run against a multimillion-dollar party machine that has been actively campaigning against any form of carbon tax. That has worked against my campaign.
I happened to come out with a particular policy that is very conservative—because it’s based on free markets, smaller government, and much lower income taxes—and I’ve run up against the party machine that has actively campaigned against a carbon tax for at least the last six months, since last October when Mr. Trudeau announced his national carbon pricing plan.
(This interview was edited for clarity and condensed.)