Kevin O'Leary makes late entry into Conservative leadership race
TV commentator picks morning after French debate to declare, says he wants to be able to sell memberships
It's finally official: Kevin O'Leary is running to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
After months of flirting with the idea, he picked the morning after the party's French-language debate and used a video on his Facebook page to declare his candidacy.
"You know why? I listened to you," he said in the video posted Wednesday, thanking the "40,000" Canadians he said went to his website and encouraged him to run.
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"I'm reaching 1.2 million Canadians a week now through social media," he said in an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
Kevin O'Leary has a long record of saying whatever ridiculous thing comes to his mind.- Lisa Raitt, Conservative leadership candidate
"I want to motivate them to think about joining our party, and of course going through the leadership race, and then ultimately swapping out Justin Trudeau because most people have begun to realize he is failing and it's a horrible feeling for Canada," he told guest host Hannah Thibedeau.
O'Leary also criticized the competency of the Liberal cabinet, questioning whether the choices made sense.
"What's the executional competence of these people," he said. "Have they ever had a job? Have they ever been able to build and deliver on targets? Can they do their jobs? I don't think [Trudeau] ever asked that question."
Those wishing to vote for the next Conservative leader on May 27 must purchase a party membership before March 28.
O'Leary, 62, joins the contest months after it started. Three of the 13 other candidates made their candidacies official last spring, and will have been organizing for more than a year by the time the vote is held.
O'Leary's campaign must catch up in the space of a few months. But his various television programs in Canada and the U.S. have already made him a household name.
Avoided French debate
Waiting until Wednesday meant O'Leary was not required to participate in Tuesday's French-only debate in Quebec City.
The 13 other candidates — many of whom, like O'Leary, aren't bilingual — were forced to answer eight questions entirely in French at an event where no translation was provided.
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O'Leary has been critical of the debate formats, and said he wouldn't participate in the French debate "out of respect for Quebec and French-Canadians."
"I am disappointed and you can see from last night's event which was called a debate, but clearly that's not what happened," O'Leary said. "You have 13 people on a stage, nobody can get any ideas out and that's unfortunate. I would have thought by now it would have been reduced, but it hasn't happened."
Welcome <a href="https://twitter.com/kevinolearytv">@kevinolearytv</a> to the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cpcldr?src=hash">#cpcldr</a> race. I look forward to debating you in English or French, when you're up to it. -kkl—@KellieLeitch
Once he files his papers and pays the required deposit, however, he's required to attend the final two bilingual debates. The next one is in Edmonton on Feb. 28.
Rival Andrew Scheer, who has the edge so far in terms of endorsements, said that while he welcomes competition, O'Leary's absence Tuesday night showed a "lack of respect."
"It's not a mark of leadership to avoid a debate, to hide a deficiency," he said.
While O'Leary is well-known for his views on the economy, Scheer said, he's also had some "very puzzling statements on other issues," such as auctioning off Senate seats.
"There's more to being a Conservative than being concerned about the economy," the Saskatchewan candidate said.
O'Leary said there is more to becoming prime minister than sitting in the House of Commons as an MP, a chair he won't be rushing to take.
"Not at the beginning," he said. "That's not a good use of my time. Sitting in Ottawa is not going to help me get those votes back from those millennials."
Maxime Bernier, in Ottawa for a press conference on his foreign policy ideas, was peppered with questions about O'Leary.
Francophone votes are important in order to win in more than 100 ridings, said Bernier — one of two francophone Quebecers in the race, and also the fundraising front-runner so far.
"Yes [O'Leary's] well known with the public in general," he said. "I think I'm well known with the members of our party, and that's the most important."
Bill Ayyad, president of the Nepean Conservative riding association in Ottawa, said people have contacted him to say they'd take out a membership for the first time if O'Leary ran.
"I think that's encouraging and I think that's what we need to do, build some excitement," he told CBC News.
"I don't really feel like I've been as engaged as I have been in the past," said Lena Hillcock, who's been a party member for 30 years. With O'Leary, she said, that may change.
"We need someone who is going to stop Justin Trudeau and I think Kevin O'Leary is a little bit larger than life."
Are unions still evil?
Other candidates have urged O'Leary for weeks to either jump in and be subject to the same rules as the rest of them, or stop doing interviews and showing up at events teasing his future candidacy.
Lisa Raitt, for example, launched a website earlier this month urging Conservative Party members to work together to stop O'Leary.
"Kevin O'Leary has a long record of saying whatever ridiculous thing comes to his mind," Raitt said in a press release Wednesday that listed several examples, including a comment from the CBC News Network program Lang & O'Leary Exchange in 2011 that unions were "evil."
"Comments like this will keep the Conservative Party of Canada on the opposition bench for a generation," Raitt said.
O'Leary's campaign moved to take the sting out of those comments Wednesday.
"As you know, Kevin has said a lot of things over the years on TV, some of them serious, some of them for the entertainment value. Those comments are not a policy position," his campaign said in an email to CBC News.
Asked about the union comment on Power & Politics, O'Leary said his view wasn't meant to be "pragmatic policy."
"It made great television when it was done, three or four years ago…It was terrific, but that's not pragmatic policy.
"I can't make unions illegal, I have to negotiate with them. I can help them become more efficient and that's what I am going to do," he said.
The deadline for candidates to enter the Conservative race is Feb. 24.