COMMENTARY: Kevin O’Leary is dumping on the party he wants to lead

‘I’m not Canada’s Trump’: Kevin O’Leary when asked about immigration.

By Tasha Kheiriddin, Radio Host AM640/Global News

“That’s it. This is balls to the wall. I can’t do what I need to do in this country without a majority mandate. I can’t cast out the virus of Trudeau without a majority mandate … You have to go into the mandate with people understanding what you’re going to do.”

Ah, that Kevin O’Leary … always klassy with a capital K. And he’s ready to put his, er … nose to the grindstone, work hard to earn Canadians’ trust and serve his country in the House of Commons, rather than the boardroom or the TV studio. And you can tell he’s going to be perfectly candid and honest with you as he does it.

Or maybe not. This weekend, O’Leary skipped a Toronto debate organized by the Eglinton-Lawrence riding association, moderated by former finance minister Joe Oliver. The other 13 candidates showed up; O’Leary initially was supposed to appear as well, but then his press secretary Ari Laskin told debate organizers that, “due to campaign commitments, Mr. O’Leary recently had to miss a series of a family events and is taking the opportunity to make up for lost time by celebrating his 27th wedding anniversary with Linda this weekend.”

As excuses go, it wasn’t bad. And it might have washed if O’Leary hadn’t skipped other debates (like the one in Edmonton) or neatly avoided the French language debate in Quebec City (he can’t speak French) by waiting to declare his candidacy until after it had taken place. It might have passed muster if he was being entirely honest this time.

He wasn’t. On Sunday morning, O’Leary spent some “family time” at the MSNBC studios, giving a long interview about matters far afield from Canadian politics: U.S. President Donald Trump’s face plant over his attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare and the potential implications of changes to American tax policy.

“Somehow, I doubt his wife came along to this most unromantic of venues. Nobody on Twitter was buying O’Leary’s excuse this time, either.

“You old romantic, Kev,” one person tweeted. Here’s an epic burn: “After he loses the #CPCldr race, O’Leary will have ample time to spend with his wife. That poor woman.”

Other Twitterati threw the “#Justvisiting” hashtag his way, conjuring up bitter memories of the Conservative campaign that helped sink Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff by accusing him of lax loyalty to Canada because he’d spent so many years south of the 49th parallel.

But, hey, at least O’Leary’s interview featured some Canadian content. After talking about a spate of U.S. issues, O’Leary answered one last question about Canadian immigration policy. He held forth on “people … getting an American visa, landing at Laguardia, or Kennedy, Seattle or San Francisco … spending 20 minutes in the United States and then taking a flight to Canada, showing up at the border point of entry and asking for a hearing to establish refugee status,” and “people crossing the frozen border in Manitoba with children … losing their fingers, frozen right off, from countries like Somalia etcetera.”

By a rare coincidence, immigration was one of the key topics up for discussion at the debate O’Leary chose to blow off. But why talk to 300 Tory supporters in a room (and anyone watching YouTube’s livestream) when you can connect with millions of Shark Tank fans on an American network, right?

O’Leary’s cavalier campaign attitude is flat-out insulting — to the party he says he wants to lead, to the supporters he is supposedly courting, and to the candidates with whom he is competing. CPC members can mail in their ballots. Mailing in your candidacy is quite another matter.

Many members don’t seem to care. The latest Mainstreet Research for iPolitics gives O’Leary the biggest portion of first-choice support among the candidates — 25 per cent support, up slightly from a week earlier. Maxime Bernier came second at roughly 18 per cent, Andrew Scheer third with 12 per cent.

O’Leary also claims to have signed up 35,000 new members in just 69 days,outgunning all other candidates, most of whom had been officially running since well before the New Year.

This speaks volumes about the race itself, and the lack of enthusiasm it has generated not just among the general public, but among party faithful. If it takes a reality TV star to energize a leadership race (typically a reality TV show all on its own), then this party really has a problem.

This should have been an opportunity to retool Canadian conservatism in the post-Harper era. Instead, Tories are being treated to candidate Kellie Leitch blowing 2015’s anti-Muslim dog whistle, while fellow aspirant Brad Trost answers a question nobody asked by telling us he’s “not entirely comfortable with the whole gay thing.” Add to this O’Leary’s arrogant nonchalance, and it’s no wonder many voters are reaching for the remote.

Maybe O’Leary isn’t just a TV-pitchman looking for a bigger audience. He appears to have picked up some political habits: When asked whether he would stay as party leader if he didn’t get a majority government, he obfuscated like the best politicians do. “I don’t have contingency plans on failure. That doesn’t work. That’s not how I run my business. I set a goal; I achieve it, the majority of the time. That’s why I’m successful. I don’t waste my energy planning on failure.”

Here’s the thing: neither should the Conservatives. And that’s exactly why Tories should think twice about picking an absentee CEO.

Tasha Kheiriddin can be heard between noon and 2 p.m. ET on Toronto Talk Radio AM640. She’s also a columnist with Global News and, where this piece first appeared. Read more of her work here.

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