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Conservatives might want to be O'Leary about dragons

There is only one Donald Trump, Neil Macdonald writes. But showman businessman Kevin O'Leary looks to be mining the meme, and it clearly has some Conservatives worried.

There is only one Donald Trump, but showman businessman Kevin O'Leary looks to be mining the meme

From left, Dragon's Denizens Kevin O'Leary, Mike Armitage, Arlene Dickinson, Lisa Gabrielle and Bruce Croxon pose with their 2013 award for best reality series at the Canadian Screen Awards. (Jon Blacker/Reuters)

Gentleman that he is, Preston Manning is politely trying to nudge Canadian conservatives away from mingy, bumper-sticker simplicities and toward the spirit of principled public service.

His new political business plan, outlined in a Globe and Mail op-ed piece Monday brimming with the conservative version of sunny-ways optimism, also included bit of advice for leadership selection: No bozos, please.

Manning himself, of course, is the anti-bozo; an intellectual who always seemed to regard the clownish bomb-throwers in his party with bemused distaste.

That's not to say he was, or is, a moderate. He more than anyone is responsible for de-coupling the words "progressive" and "conservative" in Canadian politics.

Largely because of him and the Reform Party he founded, the big-tent Progressive Conservatives of John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney and Bob Stanfield no longer exist.

But Manning also believed in serious debate and civil behaviour, rather than the loud, ad hominem, raised middle finger that has taken over American conservative discourse in the U.S., and has been seeping into Canada's.

 "Ultimately," wrote Manning, in urging his party to restock what he called its cupboard of intellectual capital, "the next generation of conservative leaders, needs … to govern ably and wisely, not just communicate and entertain."

And yet, according to a new poll that came out at the same time as Manning's reflections, the reality showman Kevin O'Leary has suddenly become an ascendant star in Canadian conservative politics.

O'Leary has expressed an interest in leading the Conservative Party, and the Mainstreet/Postmedia survey found that just a few days after he put his hand up, he is tied in popularity with Peter MacKay, a former minister with long experience and a high profile.

Here be dragons

It's hard to resist comparisons between O'Leary and Donald Trump, the supreme bozo of American politics.

Neither has ever been elected to or governed anything; both love bragging about their financial genius; and both are reality TV stars.

Trump used to yell "You're fired" on The Apprentice, and O'Leary left a CBC show called Dragons' Den for something similar called Shark Tank in the U.S.

Trump, once regarded as a vulgar joke, has been borne to the top Republican Party polls by a fevered "base" that loves him for his anti-political correctness campaign.

Flame-throwers? Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump Ted Cruz enjoy the stage during the Fox Business Network debate in South Carolina last week. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

Which means they adore his eagerness to offend — to call women pigs, dogs and slobs, to call Mexicans criminals and rapists, to propose banning Muslims from entering the U.S., and generally to utter the first inanity that floats into his head.

O'Leary, having made his name in Canada, has shown more restraint, but does tend toward stunts and loudmouth behaviour.

He advocates outlawing labour unions and advises people "Don't be an employee," as though there's always a choice.

A couple of weeks ago, he offered to invest $1 million in Alberta oil if New Democrat Premier Rachel Notley would only repudiate the Alberta voters who elected her majority government and leave office.

Once, during his CBC business show, he grew impatient with Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer-prize-winning ex-New York Times journalist who was trying to explain the Occupy Wall Street movement, and called Hedges a "left-wing nutbar."

Hedges responded: "If you want to discuss issues, that's fine. I mean, this sounds like Fox News and I don't go on Fox News."

Endless overtime

Like the celebrity hosts at Fox, O'Leary's real specialty is bombastic entertainment, not the sort of in-depth policy and philosophical reflection Manning is prescribing in his plan to "recharge the right in Canada."

The thing is, the mainstream media are generally bored by the latter and suckers for the former, for two reasons. First, bombast has shock value; it sells papers and draws eyeballs.

And second, most reporters love to see conservatives fulfilling their expectations of loutishness.

The American columnist George F. Will, a giant of conservatism who regards Trump with naked contempt, has predicted that if the party nominates him in 2016, "there might not be a conservative party in 2020."

Will might dread such an outcome, but a swaggering jester leading his party to electoral ruin would be an irresistible spectacle to most other journalists, apart from providing the benefit of endless overtime.

I don't know a single colleague who wouldn't love to see the Republican Party nominate Donald Trump as its presidential candidate.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the other big GOP flamethrower, would be almost as much fun to cover.

Canada is a different place. The New York Times might now be reporting that we're suddenly hip, but if we are, we're earnestly hip.

Former Conservative justice minister Peter MacKay is apparently tied with O'Leary in quickie opinion poll. A different kind of hip in Canada. (CBC)

The Canadian version of Fox, Sun News Network, failed miserably, ignored by most Canadian TV viewers.

Still, I suspect most of my colleagues would quietly grin if O'Leary does chase the party leadership.

Meanwhile, Preston Manning bluntly rebukes the Harper legacy, calling for a commitment to "openness, honesty, transparency, integrity, compassion, humility," and making the possession of such traits a "more important factor in recruiting candidates, leaders and staff."

Further, Manning concedes there are issues on which conservatives "rightly or wrongly" are "perceived as weak or disinterested, such as poverty, inequality, health care, education, environment, science and culture."

He advises his party to pay serious attention to them.

Trump would just laugh, or sneer, at most of that. It's hard to imagine O'Leary showing much interest, either.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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