Is TV celebrity investor Kevin O'Leary a serious candidate to lead the Conservative Party of Canada?
He put an end to months of rumours Wednesday, telling Facebook fans that as a businessman he may be better qualified than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to work with America's next president, Donald Trump. He claimed to be "the only one" of 14 candidates to replace Stephen Harper who can defeat Trudeau in the 2019 federal election.
The bold suggestion was unsurprising coming from a man known for his lack of filter on reality TV shows like Shark Tank and Dragon's Den, and for unofficially competing with fellow leadership contender Kellie Leitch for the title of 'Canada's Donald Trump.' He has nicknamed himself 'Mr. Wonderful,' and pledged to be federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau's "worst nightmare."
As the millionaire mogul scrambles to raise cash and support in the short time left to the May 27 leadership vote, it's fair to wonder whether he is a serious candidate.
Two respected political pundits in Ottawa are split on the answer.
Seizing the "Trump Bump" in Canada
According to EKOS Research Associates president and founder Frank Graves, O'Leary may be in the best position of all the candidates to exploit the wave of "populism, nativism, and xenophobia" — a response to fear of economic stagnation — that Donald Trump rode to the White House. O'Leary would have to tailor the message to a Canadian audience, Graves explained, but as a fellow strongman with business experience, he said it's O'Leary's "best bet."
"Conservative supporters in our most recent polls actually approve of Donald Trump," Graves told National Observer. "He appears to put a little wind in the sails of at least that version of conservativism that we talked about, that resembles kind of a little 'Trump Bump' in Canada."
O'Leary has to clear up a few issues, including learning some French and confirming his official residency in Canada, said Graves, but if the investment guru frames his campaign properly, his odds are "bright." Claiming that a "big spatula" is needed to scrape "all that crap" from Ottawa already appears to mirror Trump's vow to drain the bureaucratic swamp in Washington, he noted, and O'Leary's star power gives his platform an extra boost.
"I think (Kellie) Leitch is kind of saying all that stuff, but I don’t think she has the same communication skills or charismatic authority as a guy like O’Leary," said Graves. "If infotainment is now what seems to be working in politics, he’s got that covered in spades."
O'Leary's wealth won't guarantee win
O'Leary must raise the non-refundable $50,000 required to enter the race officially, half of which must be paid when filing his nomination, and the other half of which is due by the close of nominations on Feb. 24. Party rules limit him to $25,000 of his own money for the campaign, and cap campaign expenses at $5 million.
Raking in cash won't be an obstacle for the bombastic businessman (his list of supporters undoubtedly includes a few rich friends), said Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher, but the spending caps could prove to be an obstacle. O'Leary is already months behind on recruiting Conservative delegates, he explained, and some of the veteran MPs in the race have had solid support for years.
"If he could, as Belinda Stronach was able to do in 2004, pour millions of dollars into the campaign, then that would be a different matter because he would be able to... have tons of staff people in every riding across the country that would be recruiting new members of the party to vote for him," said Conacher, a visiting professor of political science at the University of Ottawa.
"I think part of his game is to try and influence who wins and just try to ensure that the party is more business-friendly than it is public-interest minded."
Is O'Leary playing political games?
Forum Research polls as recent as December 2016 indicate that there's no clear front-runner in the leadership race, and while O'Leary's loud statements on jailing union members and ridiculing the poor as being unmotivated will garner some support from the far-right, Conacher predicted it won't be enough to win.
If O'Leary can attract as little as eight per cent of delegate support, however — support he can hand over to a candidate more poised to win — he can attach certain policy conditions and expectations to it. If that's the case, he told National Observer, the goal would be to create a more business-friendly policy environment in Canada.
"I’ve always said this right from the very beginning, that this leadership race is going to be a very serious fight between the progressive conservatives and the right of the party," said Conacher. "(O'Leary) can play a role of helping decide in the end who wins and influence their platform by making his support conditional on certain promises."
Asked whether Trump's victory indicates whether O'Leary can succeed, Conacher said Trump had two key advantages over O'Leary: He was a far better-known celebrity and had the 'Crooked Hillary' angle to work with. Other candidates in the race, he added, would likely appeal to a much broader range of voters than O'Leary.
“If he wins, he has to become a politician," Conacher insisted. "It’s not just a leadership race — he has to run in a riding to become an MP, he has to serve as an MP.... It’s a long haul. It’s not like running for president. It’s a different dynamic. That’s why my guess is that his real game is to try and influence the Conservative Party’s platform. And if he happens to win, it won’t be something he’s really expecting.”
A warning against mirroring Trump
Ultimately, it's still too early to tell what kind of approach O'Leary will take in the race — will he avoid mudslinging and controversy like leadership hopeful Erin O'Toole or coming out swinging with criticism of fellow candidates, like Lisa Raitt or Kellie Leitch?
On May 27, Conservative party members will choose their new leader by way of a ranked-ballot election process, allowing them to make multiple choices. That means not only does O'Leary have to convince people to join the party to vote for him, but he also has to woo those supporting his rivals to check his name down-ballot.
And despite O'Leary's claims that as a fellow investor, "I know what (Donald) Trump does, he knows what I do," Stewart Trew of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives cautioned the leadership hopeful against mirroring Trump too closely. Trump was able to capitalize on the fear and uncertainty born of unemployment rates, inequality, and income gaps, he said, but those factors are less extreme in Canada.
Extreme policy announcements, he explained, while appealing to a small section of right-wingers, will likely not bode well with the general Canadian public.
"Many of the other Conservative candidates have the same idea that we have to fight Trump with more Trump," Trew told National Observer. "O’Leary has been talking about Trudeau being a lightweight, and saying that if Trump is deregulating, we need to deregulate, and if Trump is cutting taxes we need to cut taxes.
"I think the proof is out there that Canada has been cutting taxes for 20 years now and the result is that corporations stock the money away, they don’t actually reinvest it in Canada, they don’t actually reinvest it in jobs... He’s kind of got this odd, antiquated way of looking at the economy that’s not going to do him well in the long run."
— with files from Canadian Press