As the United States continues to adjust to President Trump's administration, another businessman and reality TV star with no political experience has his eye on the highest office to the north.
Kevin O'Leary, an investor on Shark Tank and the chairman of O'Shares Investments, announced on January 18 that he has entered the race for leader of Canada's Conservative Party. In accordance with Canada's parliamentary system, should O'Leary be chosen to lead the party when elections are held on May 27, he would serve in the House of Commons as what's known in Canadian politics as the Official Opposition Leader. Then, if his party wins the most seats in the House of Commons in the general elections in 2019, he would become Canada's prime minister. But it's a crowded field in the Conservative Party race: O'Leary faces 13 other announced candidates.
O'Leary, 62, was born in Montreal. He made first made his fortune when his educational software company, The Learning Company (which he co-founded in 1986 as SoftKey Software Products) sold to Mattel in 1999 for nearly $4 billion. He became a household name to Canadian audiences through appearances as an investor on the Shark Tank-like Dragon's Den from 2006 until 2014. O'Leary currently has residences in both Ontario and Boston.
Inc. spoke with the candidate about his ideas for Canada--and how they've been shaped by Trump.
O'Leary's main pitch to voters is that Canada's economy can grow faster--and his business credentials make him the best person to do so. He says he's going to "unwind" everything current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did by lowering taxes, cutting regulations, and kickstarting $129 billion worth of infrastructure projects that he claims have stalled under the current administration.
There are at least two things that really get him agitated: Canada's federal debt--projected to hit $1.5 trillion by 2050, according to a recently released government report; and Trudeau's mandate requiring every Canadian province to create a carbon pricing plan (such as setting a carbon tax or participating in a cap-and-trade market) by 2018 to address climate change. O'Leary thinks that the additional tax will persuade businesses to go south of the border. "The problem now is with carbon taxes in provinces like Ontario and Alberta, no capital will go to those anymore--they won't be competitive," O'Leary says.
Many of his positions have been framed around what Trump's administration means for Canada. O'Leary says he's going to have to match Trump's corporate tax rates and his regulatory moves. And when it comes to Nafta, he claims he'll be able to go toe-to-toe on those negotiations, reminding Trump that "Canada is the U.S.'s largest trading partner, home to the largest peaceful border in the world, and we're responsible for nine million U.S. jobs... Canada is a strategic partner of the U.S."
The reception so far
An early poll that included only eight of the candidates found that 28 percent of responders preferred O'Leary to lead the Conservative Party--but there was a catch. Thirty-eight percent thought that "someone else" would be a better choice. Of course, as the United States learned recently, polls can be unreliable.
Frank Graves, the president of Canadian public opinion research firm EXOS, which frequently conducts political polls, calls O'Leary's chances "plausible." He says that he would place O'Leary among the top "three to four" contenders, and that O'Leary's name recognition and large social following could give him a boost.
But, O'Leary does face some challenges. He's not fluent in French, which, along with English, is an official language of Canada, though he told Canada's CTV that he would be "by the time I have to debate Trudeau two years from now." In the first debate with his fellow Conservative Party contenders, O'Leary was criticized for donating to members of the opposing Liberal party in the past, and for running as a "celebrity-in-chief."
Additionally, O'Leary's pledge to work with Trump might appeal to Conservative Party voters--who gave Trump a 57 percent approval rating in an EXOS poll shortly after election day--but might hurt him among Canadians at large, who gave Trump just a 30 percent approval rating in the same poll.
Finally, while he's pledged to jumpstart Canada's economy, so far his main talking points are lowering taxes and cutting regulations, such as the carbon tax. Trevor Tombe, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Calgary, says voters should consider a broader agenda that includes removing trade barriers and restrictions on foreign investments. It's not clear how O'Leary will persuade voters that his economic platform is better than those of his Conservative competitors, most of whom are also for cutting taxes and regulations.
The Trump factor
Like Trump, O'Leary leans heavily on his business background to explain how he'd lead the country and dismisses his lack of experience in politics: "I have nothing against politicians. There are many good ones within the conservative caucus, but what I'll do is look for the best of the best and put them in place, and set goals, just as I do in any one of my businesses." He says Trump's election ushered in an era of voters moving away from traditional politicians, and instead looking for outsiders who have evidence of "operational skills."
On a few topics, he seems to want to send a message that is sharply divergent from Trump's positions. When asked how he would handle the kind of conflict-of-interest issues that arose with Trump, O'Leary promised to do "whatever the law requires" and says he'd "never put himself in a position of conflict" should he become prime minister. And when it comes to immigration and wall-building, O'Leary is fond of saying, "Look, I'm half-Lebanese, half-Irish. If there was a wall around Canada, I wouldn't exist."
Still, when he looks at Trump's first two weeks in office, he gives the new U.S. president high marks.
"[Candidates] say many, many things during the campaign, and then they either reverse course or don't deliver. Not in this case. He is going through his list of promises, and he is delivering on them on a remarkable pace."