The Conservative leadership debate in Edmonton Tuesday night will have one empty chair. Kevin O'Leary has decided to skip the event.

"I have said from the beginning that it is a bad format to have 14 people on stage answering the same question with no back and forth," O'Leary said in a news release Monday. "It allows for no time for ideas to be examined, or any real debate to transpire."

However, some of his rivals in the contest to become the next leader of the Conservative Party suggested his decision had more to do with the fact that Tuesday night's debate is a bilingual one.

O'Leary entered the race late and has so far participated in just two debates, in Halifax earlier this month and last Friday's debate at the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa, both of which were conducted in English.

The format of the Manning Centre debate was markedly different from earlier debates. Leadership candidates squared off in groups of three or four instead of all together, leading to much more back and forth among the candidates.

Up till then, the events organized by the Conservative party had involved all 14 candidates answering the same question, with little chance to challenge other candidates on their positions.

Facing $10K fine

In the statement, O'Leary said his team tried to have the Edmonton debate format changed to the one used at the Manning Centre Conference.

"All but one candidate agreed the Manning Centre format was better, and should be used in Edmonton," O'Leary said. "Unfortunately, party organizers have informed my team that despite all but one campaign agreeing to the change, they would be continuing with the terrible previous format."

Conservatives Debate 20170224

Deepak Obhrai, Michael Chong, Kevin O'Leary and Andrew Scheer participate in a Conservative Party leadership debate at the Manning Centre on Feb. 24. The format pitted contenders against one another in small groups instead of letting all candidates speak on each subject. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Instead, O'Leary says he will hold an "intimate fireside discussion" at a nearby hotel with supporters, starting at the same time as the official debate.

It will be moderated by Tim Uppal, the former Edmonton-Sherwood Park MP who was minister of state for multiculturalism under Stephen Harper.

Because the Edmonton event is one organized by the Conservative Party, the rules state that it is mandatory for all candidates to attend.

Cory Hann, the director of communications for the party, said skipping out on an official debate comes with a $10,000 fine against a campaign's security deposit. 

O'Leary's press secretary Ari Laskin told CBC that any fine would come out of the $25,000 O'Leary personally donated to his campaign, rather than from donations from supporters.

Hann's email to CBC also disputed O'Leary's claim that all but one campaign was on board with shaking up the format in Alberta.

"We did not receive a consensus on what format to use, so we kept format the same," Hann wrote.

"Our understanding is they [were] several short of obtaining a yes to the proposed change from the remaining 13 campaigns, so the format will remain the same."

Fellow contenders unimpressed 

Some of the other leadership candidates have reacted on Twitter.

"Chicken," wrote Lisa Raitt.

Rick Peterson tweeted: "None of us #CPCLDR heard a thing about this. We were all asked for feedback weeks ago and gave it. I call B.S."

Tuesday's debate will be bilingual, which Steven Blaney focused on in his statement.

"After failing to show up to the only French debate, in Quebec City, Kevin O'Leary has found another excuse to avoid a bilingual debate," he said in an email.

"Kevin O'Leary is afraid of facing the music when confronted by his rivals about his support for more gun control, marijuana legalization and pampering of criminals instead of victims."

Reporters have asked O'Leary questions in French since he joined the race. He often answers in English, saying he is working on his French every day.


CBC News will stream Tuesday's Conservative leadership debate live on CBC News Network, CBC.ca and Facebook starting at 8 p.m. ET.