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Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

Lawrence Martin

O’Leary brings the Trump formula north Add to ...

In an age when our country’s leader need speak both official languages, Kevin O’Leary is unilingual, defiantly so. He has zero political experience. He has a checkered business career. But his mere musings a few weeks ago that he might run for the leadership of the Conservative Party prompted the media to give him star treatment.

That continued on the weekend, as he dominated headlines at the Manning Centre Conference, which showcased potential leaders. Other aspirants who have spent years in the trenches must be coming to realize that they’re missing a key element of leadership pedigree: reality TV experience.

That’s Mr. O’Leary’s trump card. As well as eyeing the Conservative crown, he says he is interested in the Liberal Party leadership. Yes, he is that pompous.

While some liken him to Donald Trump, he isn’t in the Donald’s unhinged league. No bans on foreigners. Less shock talk. Less twisting of the truth. But there are similarities. In several ways, he is bringing the Trump formula to our politics and getting away with it. He has the reality-show name recognition, the Caesar complex, the bluster and bombast, and he’s a media magnet. They chase after his every word because he’s good for ratings. He’s click bait. That’s what matters.

Certain standards used to apply to anyone seeking the leadership of a major party. You were supposed to have some grounding in the party. You worked at the riding level or in the back rooms. You served as a member of Parliament or in the cabinet. You paid your dues. There were other possible avenues. You may have gained stature in the public policy area by your writings, or via a career as a highly successful businessman or on the foreign stage. But nowadays some celebrity status and a bullhorn will suffice.

Mr. O’Leary’s unilingualism should have disqualified him from serious consideration right from the outset. The Conservatives haven’t had a unilingual leader in four decades. Thirty-three years ago, John Crosbie’s bid to become Tory leader was undermined by his inability to speak French. As our highly regarded Official Languages Commissioner, Graham Fraser, will tell you, we’ve come a long way on the linguistic front in this country. It would be a big step backward to abandon the bilingualism prerequisite now.

At the Manning conference, Maxime Bernier, a leadership candidate who has paid his dues, called out Mr. O’Leary on the language question. The long-time Quebec MP likened him to a “tourist.” If you go to Rome, you can get served in your language, he told Mr. O’Leary. “That doesn’t mean that you can govern Italy without speaking Italian.”

Mr. O’Leary does have the attribute of being an engaging and highly effective communicator. As for ideas, his main thing is to cut government waste and slash taxes. You may have heard of these conservative proposals before. They’ve been around since the 18th century.

In keeping with the Trump formula, he sometimes throws out wild, attention-grabbing stuff without providing an inkling of how it might work. His take on unions is one example. “Elect me as prime minister for 15 minutes,” Mr. O’Leary said on one show. “I will make unions illegal. Anybody who remains a union member will be thrown in jail.”

The divisive approach is the last thing the Conservatives need with their new leader. They had enough of it with the old one.

Mr. O’Leary says the Conservatives have “collapsed,” which clearly they have not. Of the Liberals, he says they are about to collapse, which clearly they are not. Such will be the chaos, says the man formerly from CBC’s Dragons’ Den, that Justin Trudeau might not even make it to the next election. And if they’re lucky, Mr. O’Leary will take a pass on the Tories and come to the Liberals’ rescue instead.

Better though would be if he remained in the United States, doing Shark Tank. What’s happening to the political culture in that country is not something that need be imported here.

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