An interesting thing happened when Conservative leadership contender Michael Chong was asked about how his party viewed science during its last government.

Chong is a Tory MP from southern Ontario who was first elected in 2004 and briefly served in the cabinet of former prime minister Stephen Harper. He has also drawn a lot of attention from the old progressive wing of the Tories because of his stance on issues such as climate change.

Chong stands out in a group of 14 candidates that include a few Tories who deny scientific evidence that demonstrates how human activity is contributing to climate change, and others who have suggested placing new restrictions on immigrants.

So when asked about how Harper’s government dramatically slashed budgets for scientific research and its overall attitude toward science, Chong distanced himself from those policies. He even used the word “they” instead of “we” to refer to his own party and what he described as its “battle” with scientists.

“I got what they were trying to do in some ways,” Chong said. “In some other ways I disagreed with it.”

Michael Chong, Ottawa, Green PAC
Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong at a campaign event in Ottawa on Feb. 22, 2017. Photo by Alex Tétreault

The remarks were among Chong's responses to questions last month from a small crowd of progressives and environmentalists gathered in Ottawa, most of whom were not card-carrying members of the Conservative Party. For nearly two hours, Chong, a former chief information officer at the National Hockey League Players' Association, fielded questions. In the process, he singled out one of Canada’s most popular conservatives, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, on climate policy, and distanced himself from the legacy of the Harper Conservatives at the event organized by a local Ottawa doctor and an entrepreneur.

“Their cuts to basic climate science research within the government department, I thought was ideologically driven, and wrong,” Chong said, in response to questions from Katie Gibbs, a scientist who heads the non-profit group, Evidence for Democracy. “But some of the cuts that they made to individual research programs, not to do with climate science… I thought had some merit, but it was in the context of a battle with scientists.”

Tory leadership candidates racing toward March 28 deadline

Chong and the other 13 candidates are racing toward a March 28 deadline for signing up new members to the party so they will be eligible to vote for a new leader May 27th.

The Conservatives are using a ranked ballot system in which every riding carries the same weight.

This means that the Conservative voters in ridings with fewer registered members would actually have more influence on the outcome than Conservatives in ridings with a larger base of members. It also means that a candidate who fails to get the highest number of first ballot votes, could still win based on having enough votes as the second choice on the ballots.

Recent surveys, including a tracking poll by Mainstreet Research for iPolitics, have shown that no single candidate is pulling away with the lead in a tight race.

Michael Chong, Ottawa, Green PAC

Conservative MP Michael Chong shares a laugh with some local residents at a campaign event in Ottawa on Feb. 22, 2017. Photo by Alex Tétreault

Chong told the crowd that they could help propel him to victory in ridings such as Ottawa Centre that have smaller numbers of Conservative members, compared to other parts of Canada if they sign up for a party membership and vote for him.

“I’m in this leadership race because my party needs to change. I am the candidate that believes in science. I am the only Conservative member of Parliament to vote in the House of Commons to restore Statistics Canada’s long-form mandatory census.

“I was the only MP to stand up,” Chong said, drawing cheers that contrast with some of the boos he has been getting in recent leadership debates in front of party faithful.

“I am the only MP that supported the Kyoto Protocol 10 years ago. I am the only candidate in this race that is getting up and saying that climate change is serious, it’s real, that anthropogenic warming is happening and we need to take action. I’m the only candidate with a credible policy to reduce emissions in this leadership race, so I think I’m your candidate, so I need your vote.”

Chong would make polluters pay

Chong is also the only Conservative leadership candidate in the race to support a policy that would make polluters pay for the carbon emissions that are contributing to global warming.

“There are stiff head winds within the party that don't support any of the approaches that I think we need to take, but that’s why... your vote is so important, right?”

And he has openly challenged the government of Saskatchewan Premier Wall on the issue of climate change. Like the current federal Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chong has pledged to impose carbon pricing on industries in provinces such as Saskatchewan that say they won't take action on climate change.

“Like the current government, if provinces don’t collect the revenues, we will collect them on their behalf and remit them back to the provinces," Chong said at the Ottawa event. "So we’ll use our federal powers to collect on their behalf — if they’re not going to step up to the plate like Saskatchewan — and remit the revenues back to the provinces.”

Conservative MP Michael Chong speaks at a campaign gathering in Ottawa on Feb. 22, 2017. Video by Mike De Souza

Chong also said that his own plan would be more efficient than the current Trudeau policy, which he said would prompt some inequality among provinces using different systems that would result in some Canadians paying more for carbon pollution than others.

Wall has threatened to take the Trudeau government to court over its plans to impose carbon pricing in Saskatchewan, but Chong noted that the federal government has broad powers to introduce a consumption tax or to introduce regulations that would put a price on carbon through federal powers that exist under the Criminal Code. Those powers, using the Criminal Code, have previously been used to regulate pollutants since the 1970s, he explained. His leadership platform calls for both types of taxes for consumers and industry, combined with incentives for provinces to reduce income taxes, as well as rebates for low-income households to ensure that they aren't unfairly penalized.

"My federal carbon tax doesn't apply to export-oriented and trade-exposed industries, it only applies to the consumer side of the economy," Chong told National Observer after the event. "Provinces are expected (under my platform) to come forward with their own carbon pricing scheme for their own industries, their own natural resource industries and they are free to recycle those revenues and to cut income taxes. If they do that, we will provide an incentive through a new federal transfer.... that would be new money available to provinces like Saskatchewan."

Michael Chong, Ottawa, Green PAC, Conservative Party of Canada
Conservative MP and leadership contender Michael Chong answers questions from National Observer on Feb. 22, 2017 in Ottawa. Photo by Alex Tétreault

When asked for a response to Chong's comments, a spokeswoman for the Saskatchewan Premier reiterated Wall's position.

"Premier Wall has made our position on the federal carbon tax very clear," said Wall's spokeswoman Kathy Young. "We are opposed to a federally-imposed carbon tax and plan to fight any attempt by the federal government to impose a carbon tax on Saskatchewan. The Conservative leadership candidates have taken a number of different positions on this issue, and we will not be responding to the positions taken by individual candidates."

Several people approached by National Observer at the event said that they weren't Conservative party members, but said they would consider getting membership cards to vote for Chong.

Kapil Khatter, Ottawa, Michael Chong
Ottawa family physician Kapil Khatter chats with others gathered at a campaign event in Ottawa on Feb. 22, 2017 for Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong. Photo by Alex Tétreault

Kapil Khatter, a local family physician who helped organize the gathering, noted that he was independent and not affiliated with any political party, but wanted to help improve the quality of debate in Canadian politics.

“Whether or not Michael Chong has a chance of being prime minister or not, we feel like having a more progressive — if you can use that word — leader of the Conservative party will create a better discourse and a healthier debate in the next election,” Khatter said in an interview.

“Like a lot of Canadians, we’re afraid of the stuff that’s happening in the United States, and somewhat in Europe as well. And even if it’s not electable, even just having discourse around islamophobia and xenophobia — having more of that in the media will tend to just increase that sentiment."

Meantime, Khatter said he would continue to volunteer his time to mobilize people about Chong's campaign, helping recruit people across the country who aren't necessarily conservative to help him get elected.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:40 pm to correct a typographical error in a quote

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Progressive Conservatives. Oxymoron? I'm still waiting to see results. I'm still waiting to hear that injured vets will get back their pensions that we Conservatives stole. I'm still waiting for science, fact-based decisions to be part of our Conservative values. Just plain facts, tempered with conscience. I am still waiting.

“I got what they were trying to do in some ways,” Chong said. “In some other ways I disagreed."
Now there's a decisive fence-sitter if there ever was one.

He's in the wrong party !