02/26/2016 01:54 EST | Updated 02/26/2016 03:59 EST

Conservative Leadership Race Will Be Top Of Mind At Manning Conference

Kellie Leitch says Tories must do a better job listening.

OTTAWA — A who's who of the Conservative movement is gathering in the nation's capital starting Friday hoping to "recharge the right" and move Canada's conservative parties out of the opposition benches and back to power.

The Manning Centre Conference, a two-day event, is also expected to also revolve around leadership politics. In addition to the sideline chats and hospitality suites, several potential Conservative party contenders — Kevin O'Leary, Tony Clement, Lisa Raitt, Michael Chong, and Maxime Bernier — are taking part in sessions titled "If I Run, Here's How I'd Do it."

O'Leary, a businessman and television personality, arrived Friday to great fanfare — mostly from reporters. He said he still hasn't made up his mind about running but knows what he will focus on if he does.

Kevin O'Leary is shown in Toronto in 2010. (Photo: Paul Lapid/The Canadian Press)

"The only thing that is going to matter in the next election is jobs, jobs, jobs," he told The Huffington Post Canada Thursday by phone from Orlando, Florida.

Canada is going through a period of zero economic growth for a variety of reasons — part of "self-inflicted by mediocrity and mismanagement of the economy," and part of it owing to the fact that 40 per cent of the economy is driven by the price of oil.

Young people are increasingly frustrated by the lack of employment prospects, he added, predicting that that's what is going to drive the discussion in the next election in 2019.

"There is going to be whole new constituency of voters who are looking for meaningful employment. They are going to listen to someone who can provide that."

The jobs available today are internships at $6 an hour with no direct path to a permanent job and a real career, O'Leary said. "The next leader of the country will solve for that, nothing else. That is going to be the biggest problem."

Voters 'don't give a damn about the past': O'Leary

O'Leary has come under fire from some in the Conservative party who view him as an interloper who hasn't done his time building the party and getting to know the grassroots. But former Reform Party leader Preston Manning said O'Leary is welcome and "the field is wide open" if the TV pundit is serious about contending.

To those Conservatives who are vocally opposed to him, O'Leary suggested, "those are the exact politicians that lost the election.

"The voting constituency doesn't give a damn if you spend 20 years in the party. They couldn't care less. They are worried about the future. They don't give a damn about the past … [and] no one is going to give a damn about any of that in 36 months, because they won't have a job."

Voters just want solutions, O'Leary added. He wants to see governments adopt better incentives to attract and encourage private-sector investments and job growth rather than big government spending that he said usually ends up in waste.

"The only thing that is going to matter in the next election is jobs, jobs, jobs."

— Kevin O'Leary

O'Leary suggested, however, that he isn't sure yet whether he will hitch his horse to the Tory wagon.

"I don't know if the path to actually affect change in economy policy is through the Conservative party — I have no idea yet. I think there [are] going to be opportunities all over the political landscape."

He told HuffPost that he believes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won't last four years in office before the Grits start looking for a new leader because of the economic catastrophe Canada is heading towards.

Nevertheless, O'Leary said he believes the Manning Centre Conference offers an "important platform" for a real debate on what is happening in economic policy across the country as well as a the future of the Conservative party. The Tories are regrouping, and the party "has to find a new direction, learn from the previous mistakes and move forward.

"The party lost touch with the voting constituency on the issues that really matter [jobs] — and that often happens, to any party, regardless, depends how long you have a mandate for."

Clement wants to talk about poverty

Other potential leadership hopefuls and a high profile MP suggested, however, that the Tories do well on economic matters; it's the other issues they have been less successful on.

The Conservatives "were not obliterated by any stretch of the imagination" on Oct. 19, said Clement, an Ontario MP and former cabinet minister. It has 150,000 members and elected 99 MPs, he noted.

"To those who want to light our hair on fire and say all is lost and we have to rebuild from the ground up: Yes, we do have some rebuilding to do, and we do have some renewing to do, but we don't have to tear down the foundations to do it."

The party's central core beliefs — more freedoms, fiscal responsibility, smaller government, and a strong military — are worth keeping, he said, but there are other policy areas that "we were silent on" in the pursuit of a focused message.

Tony Clement answers a question in the House of Commons in 2015. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

"Canadians wanted tax policy, they wanted fiscal policy, they wanted economic growth policy … but there are many other values that we refused to talk about," he said, pointing to health care, the environment and poverty reduction.

"We didn't have anything to say about poverty eradication. Nothing. Not a single word, in my view. We vacated that field to the NDP and the Liberals, and I think we are worse off for it," Clement said. His speech on Saturday will focus, in part, on that theme.

Rookie MP seeks vision on environment

Dianne Watts, a former Surrey mayor and new B.C. MP, is not seeking the Tory leadership but said she also thinks the Conservatives' message in the last campaign helped distance the party from potential voters.

"People in my community, they wanted to know what was the vision on the environment, what was the vision on greenhouse gases, what was the vision on how do we eradicate poverty. And we've done things on all those fronts but … they didn't fit into the box so they weren't communicated effectively," she said.

"A lot of good work was done that never got out there in the conversation that people were having," she added, pointing in part to a green infrastructure fund the Tories had set up, but about which they communicated little to the general public.

"I think there are things that we do well and there are things that we don't do well, so [the Manning Conference] will give everyone an opportunity to have those discussions and have an open dialogue about how we move forward."

Tories must do better job listening: Leitch

Ontario MP and former labour minister Kellie Leitch said she believes the Conservative party needs to do a better job of listening to Canadians.

"As a surgeon, I only know what is going on with a patient if I listen to what they tell me …, so I can decide how best to treat them," the pediatric orthopedic surgeon said. "I think it's important for members of the party to be out there listening to Canadians from coast to coast to coast, but also [to] advocate to get more people to join and get involved."

"We do have some rebuilding to do, and we do have some renewing to do, but we don't have to tear down the foundations to do it."

— Tony Clement

Leitch, who was the first to declare her intention to replace Conservative leader Stephen Harper, was originally scheduled to appear with O'Leary on stage at the conference on Friday but she told HuffPost she is on call at The Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and will be hanging out there with her young patients.

Kellie Leitch answers a question during question period in 2014. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

"I'm going to be standing at an operating room table … during the course of most of the conference [Friday] afternoon."

She hasn't decided whether to actually join the race, she said. "I plan to participate in some manner, whether that is engaging in the leadership race or just being an active volunteer and participating in the future of the party.

"I have shown some intentions, but I need to make sure that what I am [doing] is in the best interest of myself and also of the party, and in the best interest of the country."

The Conservative party has decided its new leader will be selected on May 27, 2017, but it hasn't released the rules of the contest yet. One source contemplating a run is aware of about 12 candidates testing the waters but expects only three to run for the leadership because raising funds — likely more than a $1 million through a maximum of $1,500 donations — would prove very difficult for some.

The Manning Centre Conference is expected to focus mostly on rebuilding the right.

Manning: Tories will clean up after ‘Trudeau the Last'

Liberal governments both provincially and federally dominate the landscape in Canada, with the with the exception of Saskatchewan under Brad Wall, and British Columbia under Christy Clark, who has a fair number of Conservatives grouped under her Liberal banner.

In a speech opening up the conference, Manning said Conservatives need to get ready to clean up the major fiscal mess of Liberal and NDP governments across the country — when the public has had enough.

He pointed to Ontario and Alberta, and also mentioned Manitoba, which is heading to the polls in April. Federally, Manning said, Trudeau has embraced the same old Liberal policies of his father that had crippled the energy sector, plunged the country into debt and divided the country.

"So, just as it was left to Conservatives to clean up the fiscal and unity mess from 'Trudeau the First,' Conservatives must recharge and prepare to clean up from 'Trudeau the Last,'" Manning said.

With a file from Catherine Levesque

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