09/13/2016 11:21 EDT | Updated 09/14/2016 06:41 EDT

Rona Ambrose Urges Tories To Stay United As Leadership Race Heats Up

"We all understand the importance of speaking with one united voice."

HALIFAX — Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose warned the Tory caucus Tuesday not to let their upcoming leadership contest divide the party.

"I know we all understand the importance of speaking with one united voice. We are all realists here," Ambrose said in a speech to about 115 MPs and senators gathered in Halifax for a summer caucus meeting.

"We know that drama drives ratings, that those outside of our party will do everything they can to separate us into separate camps. Friends, our party has been there before, a long, long time ago, and we have no intention of going back there."

Interim leader Rona Ambrose addresses the national Conservative summer caucus retreat in Halifax on Sept. 13, 2016. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/CP)

In recent days, the Conservatives have been embroiled in a debate over "Canadian values" after Ontario MP and leadership candidate Kellie Leitch said would-be immigrants should be screened for "anti-Canadian values." She has since explained that she believes newcomers should be surveyed to see if they believe in same-sex marriage and the equality of women.

Several Conservatives MPs gathered in Halifax privately told The Huffington Post that they think Leitch is "crazy" and that she and her campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, are hurting the party's future chances by trying to carve out space in an increasingly crowded field of leadership candidates. Publicly, some leadership candidates — in particular, Ontario MP Michael Chong and Alberta MP Deepak Obhrai — have panned her views.

On Tuesday, Chong called Leitch’s plans a “dangerous game” that is “unworkable and nonsense.”

Michael Chong announces he will run for Conservative Party leader May 16, 2016. (Photo: CP)

“Are we going to say to Old Order Mennonites who are immigrating here from South America and Mexico, and Jehovah’s Witnesses … that they are not allowed to immigrate to Canada because they don’t believe in voting? Are we going to say to other immigrants that they are not allowed to immigrate to Canada because they don’t believe in gay marriage?”

It is perfectly fine to talk about immigration in positive terms, about how to fix the immigration system, Chong said, or how to strengthen security screening. “But if you frame the debate in negative terms and play to people’s dark fears about immigration, that is not constructive and that is not responsible leadership.”

He suggested that if Leitch won the leadership, the Conservatives would suffer the same fate as the Parti Québécois in Quebec did after bringing in in a contentious and anti-immigrant “values charter.” They would lose the next election.

“But if you frame the debate in negative terms and play to people’s dark fears about immigration, that is not constructive and that is not responsible leadership.”

— Michael Chong

Obhrai, who had accused Leitch of promoting a “negative” image of immigration, said he still disagrees “100 per cent” with her policy. He also disagrees with Ontario MP and leadership candidate Tony Clement’s policy — and the previous Conservative government’s legislation — of stripping dual citizens convicted of terrorism of their Canadian citizenship. He disagrees but he won’t attack the candidates personally, he said.

“I just say I disagree with the policy. It is their point of you, which you respect, but you disagree,” he said.

“That’s their view, it’s not the Conservative party’s view,” he stressed.

After having gone through four leadership contests, Obhrai said he knows how divisive races can be.

Deepak Obhrai rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday September 21, 2011. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

“Friendships break,” he said.

“It’s very important that we remain as a team, because once the leadership race is over, we are back out as a team.”

Ambrose’s plea for unity was an acknowledgment of a major debate that blew up after Leitch’s survey and fundraising note and an attempt to prevent a re-emergence of fault lines present during the last election, some MPs confidentially said. Several Conservatives, especially in the Greater Toronto Area and in ridings with large immigrant populations, were livid at the Tories’ electoral strategy and public stands.

Ambrose’s job is to hold the boat together, Obhrai said. “If you have a fractured boat, the target over there [winning the next election] will not be achieved.”

“It’s very important that we remain as a team, because once the leadership race is over, we are back out as a team.”

— Deepak Obhrai

Some MPs seemed to want to move on from Leitch’s “anti-Canadian values” issue Tuesday and starve the story of any oxygen that could keep it alive.

Calgary MP Michelle Rempel told reporters they could check out her tweets if they wanted to know how she felt about the topic. Any policies directed towards immigrants should recognize that immigrants built this country. Rempel, the party’s immigration critic, said she didn’t really understand what Leitch’s policy was and suggested that reporters talk to the candidate directly.

Leitch said Canadians were “responding in droves” to her proposal. “Very different than the media — how the media has depicted this,” she said.

Canadians want to talk about Canadian values, such as equality of opportunity, hard work, generosity, and tolerance, she said. “I’m getting hundreds, if not thousands, of emails about how this is good for the country.

“It is not divisive. We are there for debates, and our people they understand that.”

— Maxime Bernier

“I’m looking forward to the debates,” she added.

Quebec MP and leadership candidate Maxime Bernier insisted that the anti-Canadian values discussion wasn’t dividing the party.

“It is not divisive,” he repeated. “We are there for debates, and our people they understand that.”

He compared Leitch’s controversial policy to his own on ending supply management in the dairy industry — something that he noted also went against current Conservative party policy.

“[Our people], they want a debate over ideas, and she has an idea and a proposals, and others, we have other points of view,” he said.

Questioning immigrants on their Canadian values isn’t the right solution, Bernier added, arguing that but putting more resources into security screening and integrating immigrants by giving them better job opportunities is. A polite discussion could be had, he suggested.

“I don’t want everyone to say the same thing on every subject.”

Tuesday, the leadership contest continued to consume most of the corridor chatter at the caucus meeting.

Conservative MP Andrew Scheer speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in May. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer, the former speaker of the House of Commons, resigned from his role as opposition house leader, saying his exploratory talks for a potential leadership bid were going well and he wanted to investigate the opportunity further. A source close to him said Scheer is days away from announcing he was joining the race.

Another Saskatchewan MP, Brad Trost, said he too would resign as critic for Canada-U.S. relations and formally launch his bid.

Trost said he plans to win by asking members to consider him as their second, third or even fourth choice on their preferential ballot.

With a nine-person race, he said “there is no way” any candidate is going to get 50 per cent plus one of vote on the first ballot. “So I think there is a lot of motivation to be kind to your friends who are running, because if they drop off the ballot, you’re going to want them and their support,” he said.

At least 12 MPs are running or thinking of running, and the slate of candidates may expand after one of the party’s favourites, former cabinet minister Peter MacKay, announced Monday that he will not be making a bid.

Tories to focus on economy

Inside the meeting room, the interim party leader told her team the caucus will focus on economic matters when the Commons returns to work next week.

"Above all, our job is to be the voice of the taxpayer and the voice of ordinary working people. In this, I know that we are a united force," she said.

The Liberals, she said, are already taking the support they received during the last election for granted. She also accused them of having "betrayed" the middle class they had promised to support. She noted how the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency is now represented by a Toronto-area minister and how the Grits had led the country from a balanced budget to a $30 billion deficit.

"While hundreds of thousands of families across the country are struggling, what is [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau's biggest priority?," she asked her team.

"Vacation! Selfies!," caucus members yelled out.

'Liberals are back all right, they are back in the red'

"That is not what I was going to say," she said, with a smile. The Liberals had unleashed uncontrollable spending with no end in sight and were consumed with finding new ways to spend the public's money and raise their taxes.

"The Liberals are back all right, they are back in the red."

Ambrose promised to hold the Liberals to account respectfully and to be open to "good ideas" from all sides.

"But in the face of an arrogant government, one that is sees no problem with record spending on pet projects, we will come out swinging," she said, to loud applause.

The Tories will focus on the economy, call for low taxes and meaningful measures that help Canadians get back to work and get better jobs, she said. "We need to stand up for all job creators. A job is a job, whether it is fashionable or not," she said, perhaps a reference to Trudeau's recent listing on Vanity Fair's international best dressed list.

'Where did Angry Tom go?'

Ambrose also threw some jabs at NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who has been criticized by some New Democrats as being missing in action.

"Where did Angry Tom go?" she asked. "Come to think of it, Ottawa is kind of a socialist heaven these days. New spending, tax hikes to pay for it all, no wonder Tom Mulcair isn't angry anymore. He's just too happy to do his job."

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