Kevin O’Leary flew in at 1 a.m. from Orlando, where he’s filming a sequel to his hit TV show, Shark Tank, to pitch himself: a potential next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
“I’m an opportunist,” Mr. O’Leary says, sipping orange juice in Wilfrid’s, the quiet restaurant in the Château Laurier hotel beside Parliament Hill.
“Here’s a party that’s collapsed and is looking for leadership. The Liberals are going to be in chaos in three years, that’s my view. And somebody’s going to have to run this place.”
The only thing he’s considering right now, he says, is affecting Canadian economic and fiscal policy. “It’s not clear to me the path is through Conservative leadership – it may be the Liberal leadership. It’s going to end very badly for Justin Trudeau,” he says.
It would be easy to dismiss the Toronto businessman-turned-reality TV star’s position as pure posturing – a chance to promote his new show, perhaps, or sell a couple of books.
But seeing it solely as a self-promotional exercise would be a mistake. In an era of Rob Ford populism and Donald Trump’s rise, brash figures such as Mr. O’Leary, who rose to fame on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, have suddenly become serious contenders in the modern political landscape.
Case in point: Mr. O’Leary left the warm weather (for less than 24 hours, but still) to appear at former Reform Party leader Preston Manning’s annual conference, alongside well-respected Conservative MP Michael Chong.
The title of their talk: “If I Run, Here’s How I’d Do It.”
Like other potential leadership contenders, Mr. O’Leary hasn’t officially declared his candidacy for any party – and it’s not certain he ever will. But he’s keenly aware of his chances. He points to a recent poll that suggests he is the top choice for Tory leadership out west, and statistically tied with former cabinet minister Peter MacKay in the east.
“I don’t know what the hell that means, but it gives me a lot of leverage, I can tell you that,” he says.
Mr. O’Leary, who is slight in person and only slightly less bellicose than when he’s tearing apart ideas on TV, says his options are wide open.
But just what an O’Leary government would look like is vague. And that’s probably a deliberate strategy – lots to be critical of, and not a lot to criticize.
Mr. O’Leary talks of reining in government “inefficiencies,” such as investing in transit nobody uses, reducing deficit spending and encouraging investment through low corporate taxes in the oil patch.
He repeatedly brings up concerns about securing jobs for young people, and says the government should give private-sector companies more incentives to hire.
His pitches are pared down. On pipelines, Mr. O’Leary says there should be two in Canada: one on the east coast and one on the west.
And how do you get the provinces to sign on?
“Politicians can’t agree, so you ignore them. You do a public referendum, and you ask every Canadian to vote simply yes or no to a pipeline,” he says, noting a margin of 50 per cent plus one would be needed to build. (This proposal casts aside First Nations’ legal rights, and the power of provinces to oppose.)
On foreign policy, Mr. O’Leary criticizes the Prime Minister, whom he dubs “young Trudeau,” for pledging $2.65-billion to help developing countries fight climate change. “What the hell is that? How did that create a Canadian job?” he says.
But he agrees with the Liberals’ decision to end the bombing mission against Islamic State militants, and thinks Canada should go even further, sending peacekeepers only when Syria is stable.
On social issues, Mr. O’Leary is remarkably liberal-minded. He believes physician-assisted dying should be widely available. And he agrees that no one, not even terrorists, should be stripped of Canadian citizenship.
“I don’t think there should be two classes of Canadian citizens,” he says, criticizing the former Conservative policy.
In fact, he points to former Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s opposition to the niqab toward the end of the campaign for the 2015 federal election as his undoing. “Harper forgot what it is to be a Canadian. You don’t talk about race and exclusion.”
Much has been made of the Conservatives’ need to rebrand themselves after their election loss and Mr. Harper’s departure after more than a decade at the helm.
But Mr. O’Leary doesn’t think the next leader should worry about that.
“Nobody gives a damn about the party’s brand. They don’t care. They want solutions that affect them personally,” he says.
Mr. O’Leary says he isn’t a member of a political party, and doesn’t feel allegiance to any of them. He won’t say how he votes.
“I’m agnostic to party,” he says.
He says his sole interest is the economy, and he looks like a man who is all about money, sporting a red Apple watch, a Prada bag and a money clip featuring hundred-dollar bills.
The comparisons with Mr. Trump are inevitable: They even share the same reality TV show producer, Mark Burnett.
But that’s where Mr. O’Leary says the similarities between himself and Mr. Trump end.
“He’s riding a populist wave in the U.S. trying to solve problems for an angry constituency there that we don’t have in Canada.”Report Typo/Error