And Kevin O’Leary discovered that political life is really a lot more difficult than most business people realize.
By SHEILA COPPS
First published in The Hill Times on Monday, May 1, 2017.
OTTAWA—Kevin O’Leary is not the first business person to stare politics in the face, and back away.
And he most certainly won’t be the last.
The annals of history are littered with the remains of high rollers lured from business or academia for a short-lived political flirtation.
In some cases, defeat was inflicted by the electorate. Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had all the credentials of a winner.
Bright, articulate, and photogenic, he was convinced to leave a prestigious job at Harvard University because political operatives convinced him he could be the next prime minister.
Like Ignatieff, O’Leary was living in the United States when he fell victim to the lure of politics.
He, too, had deep Canadian roots, and was convinced that his business background and pedigree as an outsider was enough to put him in the running to become the next prime minister of Canada.
Unlike Ignatieff, O’Leary had zero command of the French language, but he naively insisted this would have no effect on his leadership bid.
But after little more than three months on the hustings, O’Leary took a second look at his political standing and bowed out. In doing so, he left behind thousands of new Conservative members who had signed up on line with the expressed purpose of making him their next leader.
O’Leary was widely touted as the Donald Trump of the North. In Trump’s case, he parlayed his outsider status into a plus, surprising the pundits and the world by winning the American electoral college, and thus securing the presidency of the United States.
In O’Leary’s exit statement, he claimed that his reason for stepping down was that he could not see a clear path to victory against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
With almost one-quarter of the country made up of francophones who would not appreciate his unilingualism, O’Leary decided to throw his support behind Quebecer Maxime Bernier.
Less than two months ago, the two were sparring partners, with Bernier accusing O’Leary of being “a tourist in Quebec” and arguing that you can’t “govern Italy without speaking Italian.”
Last week, the final numbers were in and Bernier was proved right. O’Leary knew exactly how many members he had recruited and realized that his supporters were not numerous enough to win the leadership.
So rather than lose, O’Leary dropped out, citing the electability factor and suggesting that he was doing the Conservative Party a favour by exiting the race instead of losing a national election.
Only three months ago, O’Leary was singing quite a different song. In his opening online statement, he was blunt: “With the election of Donald Trump to our south, Canada’s largest trading partner is headed by a businessman with an aggressive strategy that could hurt the Canadian economy. Trudeau doesn’t stand a chance, and we deserve better.”
His time on the hustings must have given O’Leary an up-close and personal view of politics that few business people get to see.
The long hours, the countless rubber chicken dinners, the multiple coffee klatches with prospective delegates are a lot less sexy than getting powdered up for a televised edition of Dragon’s Den, or its American counterpart, Shark Tank.
In many respects, the job of a politician is much more demanding for much less money than most private sector ventures.
And O’Leary the business man is all about return on investment.
He discovered that political life is really a lot more difficult than most business people realize.
O’Leary’s parting claim that he was unlikely to beat Trudeau does not bode well for any Conservative leader.
With his notoriety, and business credentials, O’Leary might have become a formidable foil for the current prime minister.
Instead, the libertarian mantle has now been passed on to Bernier, who has a reputation as a smooth communicator with deep political roots in Quebec.
When it comes to policies, Bernier’s views are even more radical than O’Leary’s. Sell the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, dump supply management, and deny climate change are just a few of ultraconservative positions that Bernier espouses.
He does not believe government should ever give money to business, opposes equalization payments to have-not provinces, and believes most federal services should be decentralized.
His pared-down platform resonates with former O’Leary followers, and will probably propel Bernier to party victory.
But winning the country is another story. O’Leary revealed his decision to step down was based on the belief he could not beat Trudeau.
Bernier should heed O’Leary’s blunt analysis.
Canadians don’t elect extremists.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.