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O’Leary’s decision on Conservative leadership depends on who else runs

By Derek Abma      

‘If I can’t find someone to support, I’ll do it myself.’

Kevin O'Leary is waiting to see if any Conservative leadership candidates come forward that he can support before deciding whether he is going to run. Photograph courtesy of Kevin O'Leary

TV personality Kevin O’Leary says he’s waiting to see who else enters the Conservative leadership race before deciding whether to run himself, and he’s likely to make a decision, one way or the other, by late October.

Mr. O’Leary told The Hill Times last week that he anticipates other possible candidates will also make their intentions known by the end of next month.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of this get resolved by the end of October,” he said. “It’s going to start to get very active at that point.”

He said “it makes sense” for him make a decision around that time “because I think we’re going to find four others will have declared by then. I’ve sort of got a list of who I find very interesting in terms of policy and who I don’t.

“If I can’t find someone to support, I’ll do it myself; that’s the way I look at it.”

The deadline for registering for the Conservative leadership race is Feb. 24, and the leadership vote is scheduled for May 27. The first of five party-sanctioned debates with all leadership candidates is set to take place Nov. 10 in Saskatoon.

So far, MPs Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.), Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), and Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) have registered for the contest. Those who have indicated their intention to run, who were not yet registered last week, include MPs Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.) and Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.), former MP for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, Ont., Pierre Lemieux, Toronto communications consultant Adrienne Snow and Winnipeg doctor Dan Lindsay.

Mr. O’Leary said his high public profile affords him the luxury of not rushing into a decision.

“Those who are declaring early have a need to get their name out there,” he said. “I don’t have that problem.”

Mr. O’Leary is on the ABC television series Shark Tank, in which a panel of prominent business people judge and potentially invest in business ideas presented by contestants. He was previously part of similar CBC show called Dragons’ Den. Mr. O’Leary has also been a regular commentator about stock market and economic issues on news programs, and is involved in various businesses including as chairman of O’Shares Investments, a financial-services firm with offices in Boston and Montreal. He’s known for starting SoftKey Software Products Inc., which took over The Learning Company (TLC) before it was bought by toy giant Mattel Inc. in the 1990s for about $4-billion.

In the meantime, Mr. O’Leary said he’s been meeting with several declared leadership candidates, and even those not yet declared, to determine whether there’s anyone in the field he could support instead of running himself. He wouldn’t say who he’s met, besides Mr. Clement, who he said went public himself about a meeting between the two earlier this summer.

“Most of them are calling for these meetings because they’re making the assumption that I won’t run and they’d like to get my backing,” Mr. O’Leary said.

He said he’s evaluating how close the policies of potential candidates are to his own ideas and also the quality of the campaign organizations they have in place.

Mr. O’Leary said he has people on the ground who are ready to run his leadership campaign if he decides to “pull the trigger.”

“I wouldn’t call it wide, but it’s enough that I could pull the trigger and get going,” he said. “It’s people that have done this before that want to be involved with me.”

He wouldn’t rule out running as a Conservative MP candidate, if not party leader, but said he would be more inclined to be a special adviser on economic issues to whoever ends up leader, if not him.


Kevin O’Leary on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Photograph courtesy of Kevin O’Leary

“Frankly, my interests are very, very myopic, and I’ve been transparent about this; I’m only interested in fiscal and economic policy,” he said. “I’m about job creation. There are many better people who could run other mandates, but my interest in working with a new leader, if I end up supporting somebody, would be just in that [economic and fiscal-issues] capacity.”

Mr. O’Leary said he has not yet considered what riding, if chosen as Conservative leader, he would seek to represent. The businessman, who has a residence in Toronto, said he would not discount his ability to win a Toronto riding, even though the Conservatives have traditionally struggled there.

“People don’t brand me as a Conservative,” he said. “They brand me as a manager. And if I make promises—and look at businesses that I’ve been involved in over the past—I think I can convince people in a riding that I would be a good choice to manage their affairs and be a fiduciary for them.”

A May Forum Research poll suggested that Mr. O’Leary would be among the favourites to win the Conservative leadership race if he entered, as would former cabinet minister Peter MacKay, who also has not said whether he will run, but is considering a bid.

One shot against Mr. O’Leary is that he doesn’t speak French.

Asked how much of a factor Mr. MacKay’s presence in the race would affect his decision to run, Mr. O’Leary said: “Every entrant affects my decision. Peter’s a good man. We’ve spoken. He’s going to make his own decision. … I don’t know this with certainty, but it’s highly likely by the end of the fall, he’ll have made his decision. …We’ll probably both make our decisions in the fall.”

Recently, much of Mr. O’Leary’s media criticism has been focused on Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, and he’s also harshly criticized Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley previously.

Although he is considering a federal run, he said it’s important for him speak out about what he feels is poor management of the two provinces most important to Canada’s economy.

“You can’t have a competitive Canada without Ontario’s manufacturing base being competitive, without the energy out of Alberta being brought to the market at world prices—not at a 25 per cent discount” he said.

If prime minister, he said, “I can’t have poor managers running the two largest economies. I have to get rid of them. I can’t fire them on behalf of the Canadian people, so I have to do my work now to make sure they fail in the election.”

He had some pointed remarks about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) as well.

Mr. O’Leary said it’s too early to fully assess Mr. Trudeau’s economic plan, which involves deficits totalling more than $100-billion between now and the 2020-21 fiscal year, compared to his election platform that talked about deficits of less than $10-billion annually with a return to a balanced budget in 2019.

However, Mr. O’Leary said there are no signs yet that Mr. Trudeau’s plan is helping to kick-start the economy, though he does think uncertainty over the government’s fiscal agenda is hurting business investment.

He noted the loss of jobs for 31,000 people in Canada overall in July—71,000 fewer people with full-time jobs compared to 40,000 more with part-time jobs.

“Those job numbers … are the worst I’ve seen since the [2008-09] recession,” he said. “And I’m going to say there’s a lack of confidence in Trudeau’s mandate. When business leaders hear him talking more taxes, no tax breaks for small businesses where the majority of the jobs come from, and on top of that $100-billion in deficits with no balanced budget in sight, that eats and erodes the confidence of a CEO, whether it’s a large or small business. And that’s why they’re not hiring, because they’re nervous about those policies.”

Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) spokesman Daniel Lauzon said in an email that such criticism of the government’s economic performance “couldn’t be further from the truth. …  Canada hit a‎ few bumps in Q2, and those were due to the Fort McMurray wildfires, and slow global growth. But the Canadian economy is expected to rebound in the third quarter, as oil production has returned to the normal levels and rebuilding efforts in the Fort McMurray area have begun.” ‎

Mr. O’Leary compared Mr. Trudeau’s current popularity to being madly in love with someone early in a relationship but encountering problems later on.

“It’s so euphoric when you’re dating a girl you’re in love with. But then you get married, and all of a sudden a couple of years roll by and, my goodness, the stresses and the realities of the economic outcome of the marriage [become apparent],” he said.

“It won’t matter how many selfies he takes. It won’t matter how many parades he marches in. If he can’t create jobs, if he doesn’t get the economy moving, and he can’t reduce taxes and become more efficient, all of those things will hurt him badly. I think the euphoric period is coming to an end.”

Mr. O’Leary said the way to improve Canada’s economy is to focus on key sectors such as energy, natural resources, and telecommunications. And rather than simply spending taxpayers’ money, he said he would create tax incentives that would attract more global investment for these industries in Canada, and allow the building of needed infrastructure, like pipelines, to go forward, and roll back corporate taxes.

Mr. O’Leary had this to say on other issues:

  • Environment and climate change: “At the end of the day, we are 2.5 per cent of the world’s GDP. We are not the biggest polluters, by any margin. We have done a great job in reducing carbon emissions per capita. …We own some amazing technology in Canada that we have not marketed to the world. I would go directly to the largest polluters … and say, ‘Look, let us be your partners. Let us help you accelerate your emission reductions.’”
  • Syrian refugees: “We need, definitely, to slow the process. I’m half Lebanese, half Irish, so if we didn’t have a policy of bringing in people from the Middle East, I wouldn’t exist. But I think in today’s times, it would be good idea to slow the process and do a lot more due diligence on individuals. …Who do they know here? Who is their family? In a Middle Eastern society, you have family. The reason you move to Canada very often is you know somebody. And I would like to know who they know. And a simple process of just a little due diligence could reduce the risks that some people are concerned about.”
  • Marijuana legalization: “I’m 100 per cent behind it, and I’d like to see it accelerated. I want marijuana distributed after its quality has been tested. I want it to be taxed the same as alcohol. I want full distribution for recreational use. And I want everybody in prison removed who was involved in long sentences for having marijuana; that’s ridiculous.”


The Hill Times

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