By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via  Jonathan Hayward, CP.

If you’re reading this you’ve survived the first twenty four hours of a Trump administration and in that respect congratulations are in order. God help us. Yesterday felt very much like a funeral for American democracy: people put on brave faces, the mood was somber, priests did most of the talking and when it was all over, the attendees left as quick as possible, feeling unusually hungry. Determined to push the needle of the Doomsday Clock even further towards midnight however is Canada’s, or rather, Boston’s very own Donald J Trump: Terrance Thomas Kevin O’Leary.

The self-seeking charlatan, a personal study in the emptiness of corporate braggadocio, announced his official candidacy for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada over Facebook this week; that is, before the microphones in Quebec City set for the French leadership debate even had a chance to cool. “It starts right now,” he said in his typically glib style; O’Leary, charmless to the bone, slammed his competitors as if he were selling payday loans on daytime television, accusing our prime minister of “destroying the country,” predicting the next election would be an “exorcism” and decrying the French leadership debate as “incredibly bad television” as if the sum of its worth were purely its entertainment value.

Certainly there are differences between Monsieur Merveilleux and America’s new president; O’Leary, for his part, has not stirred prejudices and islamophobia in the same manner as his fellow competitor, the Hon. Dr. Khristinn (sic) Kellie Leitch, P.C., O.Ont., M.D., M.B.A., F.R.C.S.(C), has. Leitch, who just last week wished to remind her critics how many letters after name she had earned (the answer’s 16 for the record), is running a campaign closer to Trump’s in some respects. But in what her imitation lacks, O’Leary is in no short supply: minor celebrity, political inexperience, arrogance, shamelessness, superficiality, cruelty and a cartoonish, over-the-top disregard for our political institutions, the law, the truth and the rights, limitations and reality of our constitution.

It therefore comes with both genuine concern and embarrassment for my country that I must write in my capacity as editor that, yes, Kevin O’Leary has a clear opportunity before him, a path to victory, to seize the leadership of the Conservative party and become leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.

It’s far from inconceivable that Kevin O’Leary, as soon as April of this year, could be sizing Stornoway’s front door with a measuring tape to make room for his designer chesterfield. But if you’re still skeptical of his chances, the rest of this piece, henceforth titled ‘A guide to winning the Conservative leadership for antagonistic bullshit artists with cash to blow’ is for you, the dearly unconvinced. For O’Leary, the path to securing the party’s nomination is simple, it’s intuitive, achievable and it would deeply divide both the Conservative party and the country at large – setting our country’s federal-provincial relations and its environmental and energy policies back twenty years.

“The time for empty talk is over,” says President Donald J Trump before proceeding into a cascade of purple prose complete with the ‘blood of patriots,’ the ‘urban sprawl of Detroit,’ the ‘windswept plains of Nebraska,’ the ‘breath of life by the same almighty creator,’ ‘mountain to mountain’ and ‘ocean to ocean.’

A year ago now, I remember listening to Kevin O’Leary ranting and raving over talk radio; O’Leary was a regular on NEWSTALK 1010’s Live Drive segment but he was being particularly ridiculous that day. Asked a softball question about Premier Kathleen Wynne’s management of Ontario’s economy, O’Leary proceeded to launch into a full scale assault on Alberta Premier Rachel Notley with not even a shed of an acknowledgement that he had been asked about Wynne. The hosts seemed positively baffled but politely let him continue. Was he confused? Did he know this was a Toronto station? Had he misheard the question, perhaps?

It’s a sad day in angry Ontario radio when even Kathleen Wynne would have done a better job attacking Kathleen Wynne, but Kevin O’Leary managed it.

However, it was not accidental on O’Leary’s part, in fact it was fairly routine for him. He had been given a platform to share what thoughts he wished to impart on his listeners – he has a message, that Rachel Notley is bad, bad, bad news, and that he’s Canada’s and Alberta’s economic savior with a master plan to rejuvenate the province’s oil sands development – and he’s stuck to that message, repeating it consistently, often with zero regard to the question. Kathleen Wynne would have been personally off topic for Kevin O’Leary. These techniques are, at this point, time honoured politics – an act of self-parody – exploiting interviews for political airtime; in the mind it conjures up faded images of former Ontario premier Mike Harris, O’Leary’s new adviser, interpreting every question in the 90s as an opportunity to drone on and on about his ‘common sense revolution.’

True to form, O’Leary has spent the past year berating Rachel Notley in every public platform he can find to suggest she, not low oil prices, is the source of the province’s misery. This time last year he glibly pledged to donate $1M to Canadian energy companies if Rachel Notley resigned, calling on her to resign “for the absolute good of Canada.” On oil stocks, O’Leary said “I wouldn’t touch them now, because she doesn’t know what she’s doing.” He’s since used every forum he can find to continue advancing that narrative: airtime on NEWSTALK 1010 in Ontario for instance; in addition to editorial space in the Globe and Mail, Huffington Post and the Edmonton Sun, where he wrote in a series of cheesy ‘open letters’ to Alberta’s premier attacking carbon pricing. “Beyond repealing your illconceived (sic) carbon tax, your only action should be to apologize to the people of Alberta and step down,” writes O’Leary, ending his editorial in dramatic flair: “Harsh words? Yes, but at this point, as we watch the Canadian economy grind to a halt and hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs, it’s time to speak the truth.”

Truth? What is truth anymore anyways? Life today is death by epistemology. Canada added 214,000 more jobs this past year, shredding its unemployment rate over the course of 2016. The “hundreds of thousands of people” losing their jobs were apparently, hundreds of thousands getting jobs. The question is not in the volume of the jobs being created but the quality of them, and in that respect, Kevin O’Leary has nothing to offer the Canadian people but an endorsement of the lowest common denominator of business practices: deregulated labour law and dismantled organized labour (and if his business practices is any indication, outsourced production.) Zero hour contracts, perhaps? It wouldn’t be a proposal uncharacteristic for him.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley demonstrates her “clear opposition” to pipelines in this excerpt from a television ad last year. (Photo: CBC.)

It seems ‘the truth’ in O’Leary’s mind requires mischaracterizing carbon pricing as a gross expense on consumers and industries despite the B.C. experience – deconstructing a carbon tax from the laws of supply and demand, the price competition and technological innovation that makes both carbon pricing, and the very capitalism he professes to love so much, work.

O’Leary shows no alarm towards the social costs of pollution or their externalization. Pollution, zap. Gone. Climate, zap. Unchanged.

He suggests that if Trudeau and Notley and other supposed enemies to the oil and gas industry wanted a pipeline from coast to coast, they would have got it made already, as if aboriginal and treaty rights weren’t entrenched constitutionally and that environmental protocols weren’t in place to protect Canadians and their environment. Pipelines, zap. Built. Red tape, zap. Gone. Workers, zap. Employed. He presents his vision for a pipeline as if it were a novelty – it’s Energy East (and before that it was former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s brainchild.)

Together his quaky ‘ideas’ like holding a referendum on pipelines, selling Senate seats to interested bidders (the Senate should be a “profit centre” he contends), and jailing union workers (“Anybody who remains a union member will be thrown in jail”), form a web of goofy intransigences that we’re meant to applaud as “fresh and new” rather than recognize them as the legally problematic undesirables that they are. Selling seats, jailing workers and gutting regulation is how politics is practiced in a banana republic not a liberal democracy in a mixed economy.

This is O’Leary’s path to victory in the Conservative leadership race. Tight political messaging that professes an instantaneous solution to the country’s economic anxiety: Pipelines! Pipelines! Pipelines! To win the Conservative leadership, he must simply attain majority support among Conservative party members; each party association is equal to 100 points divvied up by candidates. The oil and gas ‘heartland’ – the prairies and Ontario – make up more than half the country’s Conservative party associations. Expect O’Leary to exploit the weak Alberta connections among other candidates, building a core constituency there – while touting himself as the slayer of carbon taxes and energy prices to Ontario and Nova Scotia, and the bringer of Energy East to New Brunswick.

Together, Ontario, the prairies and Atlantic Canada account for 63% of the available votes, united by their concern for Canada’s oil and gas industry.

Despite the CPC’s proportional nomination system, O’Leary’s tactic will out of necessity have to be based entirely on political geography: his pipeline pitch will be anathema in Quebec and British Columbia (35% of the available points) but under Alternative Vote rules, he can make up for that shortfall by monopolizing the first and second choices across the prairies, Ontario and Atlantic Canada. What stands in his way is just how unpopular he could be in Quebec and BC (the more unpopular, < 20%, the harder the electoral math), in addition to well placed opponents like Saskatchewan’s Andrew Scheer and Ontario cottage country’s Kellie Leitch, and the challenge of shoring up support in Manitoba, where pipeline support is lowest in the prairies and opposition to carbon taxes is mildest.

The nomination of Kevin O’Leary would be a feat of modern celebrity, name recognition, concise messaging, petty demagoguery and a manipulation of the country’s regionalism but it would not be impossible. He’s been rambling non-stop for the past year, bashing Rachel Notley and singing the pipeline anthem, not unlike Donald Trump screaming “I’m gonna build a wall” across the midwest, because he knows in the regions where it will register the most with Conservatives that their local party associations will together possess the 16.9K points that he needs to squeak by with a close, divisive win.

Could he make a go of it in a general election though? O’Leary may appeal strongly to neighborhoods in Toronto’s outer ring, Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York, which delivered Harper his majority in 2011 (and took it back in the subsequent election faster than he could say “boo.”) But his strong anti-union, pro-outsourcing sentiments should rub like salt on the wounds of Ontario’s manufacturing industry, jeopardizing his chances in ridings as competitive and diverse as Oakville, Oshawa, Hamilton, Brampton and Simcoe Grey.

Truth is though, I don’t know if O’Leary could win a national election and I don’t want to have to find out. Neither the Conservatives nor Canada deserve the indignity of Kevin O’Leary. I have witnessed a Trump inauguration, stared into the face of its grotesque doublespeak, its hallow slogans and heinous surrealism – seen reverend after reverend sacralize the sacrilegious, seen people beaten in the streets as suits praise their rights and security, seen a police state burgeoning before us – and I know this much: our democracy is too important to risk on a man who would emulate such a gross absence of leadership.


Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes

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