Kevin O'Leary blasted for avoiding bilingual debate in Edmonton

The decision of Conservative leadership hopeful Kevin O'Leary to skip Tuesday's debate in Edmonton isn't sitting well with former or current Tory MPs in the city.

Lack of French the real reason former TV personality is avoiding debate, Edmonton Conservatives say

Conservative leadership hopeful Kevin O'Leary says he's skipping Tuesday night's debate in Edmonton because of the "bad format." (David Donnelly/CBC)

The decision of Conservative leadership hopeful Kevin O'Leary to skip Tuesday's debate in Edmonton isn't sitting well with former or current Tory MPs in the city.

"There's a number of other candidates now who will have to step up and show that they're the ones that can truly represent us here in Edmonton," said Edmonton Riverbend MP Matt Jeneroux, who is backing the bid of Regina Qu'Appelle MP Andrew Scheer.

Scheer called O'Leary's decision an insult, further demonstrating that the businessman, a former star on CBC's Dragons' Den, is not a serious candidate.

O'Leary issued a statement Monday citing the format of the debate as his reason pulling out of the sold-out event at the Maclab Theatre.

"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," the statement said.

Scheer said the format is not the issue for O'Leary.

The debate in Edmonton is bilingual. Scheer said O'Leary has a track record of avoiding debating in French, only entering the leadership race after the party's event in Quebec City in January.

"I think this is more about him not wanting to debate rather than the format of the debate," Scheer said.

'Doesn't speak a lick of French'

Former Edmonton Centre MP Laurie Hawn agreed.

"He doesn't speak a lick of French," Hawn said of O'Leary, who is only now just learning the language.

The party said candidates who don't participate in its official debates face a $10,000 fine.

O'Leary's camp said he will pay it out of the $25,000 he himself put towards his campaign as opposed to donor contributions.

Scheer said that doesn't make a difference.

"It's bad fiscal management. We're fiscal Conservatives in this party. We want to see leaders who can manage money and incurring a $10,000 fine for no reason, regardless of how his campaign covers it, is a bad signal," he said.

Jeneroux said he has spoken with O'Leary about challenges in Edmonton and Alberta, specifically the economic climate.

He said he's made it clear to O'Leary the job market is still struggling, but that Conservatives in the city should get the chance to hear from all candidates at once on the topic.

O'Leary hosting own event

O'Leary is holding an event of his own, a question-and-answer session, across the street at the Westin Edmonton at the same time: 6 p.m.

While Hawn sympathized with O'Leary's issue with the debate format, it stopped there.

"He can not like the format. That's fair ball," Hawn said. "But the candidates don't get to set the rules.You join the game, to me, you play the game by the rules that are set.

"Kevin O'Leary is kind of reminiscent of Michael Ignatieff, just visiting. If you remember that thing we tagged him with and it stuck," Hawn said.

"He wasn't here for us. He was coming back to be the prime minister and as soon as he couldn't be, then, clearly, where is he now? He's back at Harvard. If Kevin O'Leary doesn't win, he'll be back on television."



With files from the CBC's Zoe Todd and Susan Lunn