Politics·Analysis

Like Trump, Kevin O'Leary only needs voters to take him seriously: Aaron Wherry

Perhaps all prime ministers end up becoming television characters, but Kevin O'Leary is the first TV character to run for prime minister. Now, the question is how serious O'Leary should be taken as a contender for high office.

O'Leary says public understands distinction between his TV personality and political candidacy

Television personality and businessman Kevin O'Leary is the newest Conservative leadership contender. (Reuters)

Perhaps all prime ministers end up becoming television characters, but Kevin O'Leary is the first TV character to run for prime minister.

His background is in business but his fame is based on his work as the tough-talking, unforgiving judge on Dragons' Den and Shark Tank and as a business commentator.

He's what's known as a television personality and the resulting name recognition is his greatest asset as a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

O'Leary shares none of the new U.S. president's nativist and ethnic politics, but his nearest precedent is still Donald Trump, another star of reality television with the aura of a businessman and a gift of gab.

Now, the question is how serious O'Leary should be taken as a contender for high office.

'TV entertainer with absolutely no filter'

In launching her "Stop Kevin O'Leary" campaign earlier this month, leadership rival Lisa Raitt described him as a "TV entertainer with absolutely no filter."

But that's part of his appeal. 

As he explains on his campaign website, "Canadians are looking for a Prime Minister who is not a career politician; a Prime Minister who will fight for them, and is not afraid to tell them how it is."

Like Trump, O'Leary speaks with the assurance, pace and hyperbole of a pro wrestler cutting a promo.

Kevin O'Leary explains why he's running for the Conservative Party leadership 0:51

He uses words like "stupid" and "screwed." He refers to the prime minister as "surfer dude" and has said Justin Trudeau negotiating with Donald Trump will be like "Bambi versus Godzilla." He says the next election will be an "exorcism."

He barged into the national debate last January when he declared he would invest $1 million in the oil and gas industry if Alberta Premier Rachel Notley resigned. 

Appearing at the Manning Centre conference in March, O'Leary said he had recently met Finance Minister Bill Morneau and told him, "Listen Bill, I don't like deficit spending. I'm going to be your worst nightmare. I'm going to tear that budget to pieces."

In December, he brandished a spatula in a video to explain that he was going to scrape the "crap" out of Ottawa.

Raitt greeted O'Leary's campaign launch this week with a list of his comments she finds objectionable, some dating to O'Leary's time as co-host of CBC's Lang & O'Leary Exchange.

"Kevin O'Leary has a long record of saying whatever ridiculous thing comes to his mind," Raitt wrote in an email to her supporters.

Conservative leadership candidate Lisa Raitt says O'Leary 'has a long record of saying whatever ridiculous thing comes to his mind.' (John Woods/Canadian Press)

But presented with some of his previous comments this week, O'Leary said the public understands there's a distinction between who he's been on TV and who he is now.

"I have been a commentator on television for over a decade," he told the hosts of CTV's Your Morning on Wednesday when reminded that he'd referred to Conservatives as "losers" last year. "I've said many different things ... There's 10,000 hours of things that I've said. I expect all of them to get regurgitated. They don't mean anything. They're not policy ... I don't care what I said 10 years ago, what matters is how we're going to fix this country."

Asked later by CBC News about his suggestion that labour unions be done away with, O'Leary's campaign explained that, "Kevin has said a lot of things over the years on TV, some of them serious, some of them for the entertainment value."

So he tells it like it is, but he hasn't always meant it.

Calgary venture capitalist Arlene Dickinson speaks frankly about Kevin O'Leary and shares insight from her time alongside him on CBC's Dragon's Den. 0:37

Beyond taking political positions that don't obviously line up with traditional Conservative positions — supporting the legalization of marijuana and medically assisted death, questioning the utility of military combat — O'Leary's own policy proposals have strayed even further.

He's said campaign finance laws should be rewritten so wealthy individuals like himself can fund their own campaigns, a proposal that would give political advantage to the rich. 

And he's suggested Senate appointees pay for their seats in the upper chamber to transform it into a "profit centre."

That idea can only be taken seriously if one doesn't take the Senate seriously. But it can only be casually dismissed if one doesn't take Kevin O'Leary seriously.

Conservative candidate Kevin O'Leary may not be politically correct, but he's also unlikely to kowtow to a vocal minority, says Brett Wilson. 0:25

"Running for prime minister is serious business," Maxime Bernier's campaign wrote in an email to supporters after O'Leary's thoughts on campaign finance and the Senate made news this week. "Maxime Bernier is a serious contender, with a full platform. Kevin O'Leary is ... well. He's trying to sell a vision that isn't even half-baked."

What really matters

Similar questions of seriousness were raised about Trump. Barack Obama at one point described Trump as a "fundamentally unserious person."

During his run for president, Trump did or said things that might have otherwise been expected to damage his candidacy — from questioning whether a judge with Mexican heritage could fairly rule on a case involving Trump to suggesting that a rival candidate's father was somehow linked to John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Donald Trump delivers his inaugural address after being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

He repeatedly said things that were untrue and his accumulated statements on policy were described as "the most contradictory and confusing platform in recent history."

None of the above mattered enough to prevent him from winning. Because Trump, in his entertaining way, reached enough people to win 304 electoral college votes.

After hearing Trump claim, incorrectly, that 58 per cent of young African-Americans couldn't find work, writer Salena Zito came up with a theory to explain his surprising rise: "When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally." 

O'Leary likely won't repeat any of Trump's worst excesses, but he has at least some of the president's features. It remains to be seen whether he can fashion that into a candidacy Canadians will take seriously.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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