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Tony Clement: It's Time To 'Turn The Page' From Harper Era, But Experience Counts

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OTTAWA — There were some things that bothered Tony Clement about the last years of the Conservative government, but he doesn't want to dwell on them.

The 55-year-old former Treasury Board president, industry, and health minister told The Huffington Post Canada Wednesday that he's looking towards the future.

"I think there are a few things that went wrong. I don't want to itemize them. But I think we got the big things right," he said, citing the government's economic record specifically.

tony clement
Conservative leadership candidate Tony Clement is shown in his Ottawa office in July 2016. (Photo: Althia Raj/HuffPost)

Last year, Clement made headlines for saying he wished, in hindsight, that he had not got rid of the mandatory long-form census.

It was one example in a series of Conservative reversals — notably interim leader Rona Ambrose's welcome of an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and of a much more relaxed attitude towards marijuana — that surprised political watchers.

Clement said he's proud of his record and "proud of Stephen Harper's record in the 9½ years that we were in power, but it's really time to turn the page and move forward."

He signalled that he does regret Bill C-51 and the way the last election campaign was run. But he was also asked specifically if there is anything he wishes he had done differently — such as, say, that $45 million for streetlights, sidewalks and gazebos in his riding.

"Haters are going to hate on social media," he responded. "That's all part of being open and accessible."

'Haters are going to hate'

In an interview in his Ottawa office Wednesday, Clement sat surrounded by memorabilia — his 52 snow-globes (he started buying them as a student and now he just keeps getting them), a piece of the Berlin wall a friend chiseled for him hanging in a frame on the wall. There is a 1990 poster from Hungary's first free elections since 1945 that reads, according to Clement, "Comrades, you are toast!" and a poster of Superman from 1984 has the words "Knowledge is real power!" scrawled over top. Clement found it in a library and asked if he could have it.

The four-time MP for Parry Sound–Muskoka launched his bid for the Conservative leadership this week. It's his second attempt at the job, having come in third in 2003, behind Harper and Belinda Stronach with eight per cent support.

On Tuesday, in a Mississauga riding the Tories lost to the Liberals last October, Clement told supporters he is the leader who can recapture this seat — and others like what he's saying.

"We've got to reconnect with new Canadians, new arrivals, first-generation Canadians," he said.

It's a tough but not impossible task.

tony clement snowglobes
Clement loves snow globes and social media. (Photo: Althia Raj/HuffPost)

The Tories alienated many communities during the last election that for years they had tried to court. Many Muslims felt the party was using them as scapegoats with anti-niqab arguments and the promise of a barbaric-cultural-practices tip line. Other communities, in particular the South Asians, feared the Tories would deport their children to the countries of their birth if their sons and daughters were ever convicted of a crime.

But it wasn't just ridings with large ethnic populations around the Greater Toronto Area or urban Vancouver where the Tories sank, Clements noted.

"It's a problem in a lot of urban areas outside of Alberta."

Clement believes he can reconnect with new Canadians by playing up his immigrant roots — his father is Greek, his mother's mother Syrian Jewish. His parents came to Canada from Britain to start a new life, believing that if they worked hard and played by the rules they'd get ahead, he said. "That's the Canadian dream, right?"

Clement also wants to reach out to urban Canadians, millennials and younger voters — those who gave Justin Trudeau a majority government last fall.

Clement thinks he is uniquely qualified to speak to younger voters. He's very active on social media. He proudly reports that the launch of his leadership campaign on Facebook Live reached 170,000 people.

"We crushed…. Our reach was like … incredible."

He may not represent change physically, but pointing to 74-year-old former Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, Clement said, young people have shown that it's not "chronological age … but the ideas" that matter.

Millennials may be attracted to a number of Conservative policies if the party and the leader start speaking their language, he said.

"They care about freedom. They care about having that freedom online. They care about policies that are not the nanny state policies of Liberalism," Clement said.

All those young people who protested against the Tories' controversial Bill C-51 might find a home with a Tony Clement Conservative government, he added.

Not enough debate on C-51

Freedom of the Internet is a positive force in our society, Clement said. "There are those who use freedom of the Internet for violent destructive purposes, so there is always a need to help our security personnel to find the bad guys and shut down their use of that to recruit terrorists. But having said that, by and large, that is not the case on the Internet.

"I just want to have a better balance in our public policy, where we do help security personnel with the appropriate tools and with the appropriate oversight of those tools …. But we can't be in a situation where the government of the day is at war with the Internet …. That is what China does."

Clement suggests he thinks there wasn't "enough debate" on C-51 before it was tabled in the House.

Conservatives need to be the custodian of freedoms, he said. "With me as leader, that debate will occur and we will have a better balance of that in our society."

Opposed to carbon pricing to combat climate change

On the environment, an issue young people routinely say they care about, Clement said is opposed to carbon pricing. He believes the Liberals' still-unannounced plan to reach Canada's climate change targets won't be revenue neutral, and he's opposed to any new taxes.

British Columbia has a carbon tax, introduced by the right-leaning Liberal government, that is revenue neutral. It's a consumption tax but it's provincial, Clement noted, by way of explanation for his acceptance of that tax.

"I want Canada to meet the targets that are part of the Paris Agreement, but there are many different ways to do that," he said. His plan will "unleash the private sector" to help reach those goals without sacrificing the economy, he added.

Running on experience

By the next election in 2019, Clement said he believes people will be tired of a Liberal agenda that keeps raising taxes and building bigger deficits.

"I certainly don't ascribe to the theory that we can spend our way out of the low growth that is in parts of the country," he said.

"In three years time, people in Canada will want a Conservative leader who has a wealth of experience who has been tried and tested and at the same time has a really important agenda for Canada when it comes to productivity, innovation, better environmental policy, better economic policy."

Conservatives haven't had much to say on issues such as poverty reduction or indigenous peoples and their place in society, he said, but under his leadership they will.

tony clement
Clement speaks at a rally in Mississauga, Ont. to announce his candidacy for federal Tory leader on Tuesday, July 12, 2016. (Photo: Chris Young/CP)

Clement said he has the skills needed for the job. He has slashed budgets, helping find $10 billion — his count — in ongoing government savings. He has also helped build political parties, from Ontario PC leader Mike Harris' 'Common sense revolution' to being the Canadian Alliance's founding president. His goal is to modernize the Conservative party by bringing the party's grassroots back into the fold, and by being an accessible and responsive leader.

On Tuesday, Clement announced that he wants to introduce a one-page tax form. That means he would get rid of some very popular Conservatives boutique tax credits.

"I think we need to look at things differently," he said. "We ought to have a simpler tax system."

There should be fewer loopholes for rich Canadians, he said, and fewer Canadians who miss out on tax credits they are unaware they should receive and so do not claim, he said.

CBC subsidy 'makes no sense'

Another change Clement would like is to end CBC's billion-dollar subsidy.

The Crown corporation unfairly competes with other content providers from the private sector who perform the same service, he said.

"It makes no sense. We have to move to a fairer, level playing field for content providers. The day and age when the government of Canada, through taxes, is the main provider of the main income of the CBC is long gone."

CBC radio should still be subsidized, Clement thinks, but it's the other CBC programming — television, music streaming, online — that concerns him.

Won't overturn Liberals if they legalize pot

On marijuana, Clement said he favours decriminalization for possession. But if the Liberals legalize pot, he said: "I will not overturn that law, I will instead concentrate time and energy to make sure our children are protected."

If weed is legal and taxed, but people still grow their own plants for personal use, Clement told HuffPost he doesn't think they should be charged with a criminal offence.

What he is really concerned with, however, is ensuring that the pot distributors and manufacturers who get lucrative contracts don't have "cushy Liberal insider connections."

If that happens, Clement said, he'll cry "foul."

So far Clement's competition for the Tories' top job includes MPs Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch and Michael Chong.

"In three years time, people in Canada will want a Conservative leader who has a wealth of experience who has been tried and tested."
— Tony Clement

Former cabinet minister Peter MacKay is still considering whether to run, as are several other MPs. TV personality and businessman Kevin O'Leary, with whom Clement is meeting on Friday, appears less likely to join the race.

Bernier, the former foreign affairs minister who captured national headlines after leaving cabinet documents at his girlfriend's house, promised that if elected leader next May he would privatize Canada Post and get rid of supply management.

Clement also favours privatizing Canada Post, he told HuffPost, but he doesn't think anyone is interested in buying the postal service because of its costly pension plan.

"Ain't nobody going to be buying up Canada Post unless the government says we're going to take over the multibillion dollar liability of the pension plan.

"If somebody wants to buy Canada Post with the pension liability, tell me now. I'd love to see that."

peter mackay
Former defence minister Pete MacKay speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill as Clement looks on in April 2013. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)

On supply management, Clement believes that if Canada wants to transition away from it, the government must find some way of helping farmers adapt — "You can't just cut them loose and say 'that is going to be our policy from now on.'"

Clement said he decided to join the contest officially at this point because he couldn't wait any longer for MacKay to make up his mind. The Nova Scotia MP quit politics last year citing the need to spend more time with his family. He's a Bay Street lawyer now who told reporters at the Conservative convention in May that he won't be rushed into joining the race.

Clement needs the summer to start organizing and fundraising. He said he'll need a lot of cash for the contest, the spending limit for which is $5 million.

#Empower

The theme of Clement's launch is empower, or rather #empower.

"Our party needs a leader whose door is always open. Who is open to dialogue with caucus, dialogue with party membership, the broader supporters of our party, that is what empower means to me," Clement said.

He wants to create "a constant dialogue" to resolve issues, move policy forward and design electoral strategy in a collaborative way.

Similarly, to empower Canadians, Clement said, the government has to ensure the economy is working better. "That the policies of government help the private sector rather than in some ways infringe on the private sector. And [that] this will empower our economy to move forward, and people to be able to provide for their families better."

"Why is it me who can do that? I have got the experience, I've got the innovative agenda, and I've been tried and tested in a couple of decades of private life and I'm looking forward to this challenge."

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