O’Leary Isn’t Canada’s Trump. He’s Our Corbyn.

Matthew Cressatti (2L)

My original intention with this column was to explain that it would be impossible for an extremist or an outsider to win the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. I can’t do that anymore. I was going to show that because of the institutional design of the race, the relatively insular electorate, and the minimal media attention, the winner would likely be a mainstream candidate: one with centre-right positions who would be seen as reasonable by a broad swath of the Canadian population. A candidate who has spent years, if not decades, singularly devoted to winning the leadership.

But I can’t.

Right now, every indication is that the victor will be Kevin O’Leary, followed closely by Maxime Bernier or Kellie Leitch. Early on, it was Leitch who drew comparisons to Donald Trump; however, O’Leary has now stepped into the role of the polarizing outsider.

O’Leary’s similarities with Trump are cosmetic rather than substantive. Both are wealthy men who like to pretend they’re significantly wealthier than they really are. Both like talking about how great they are at business (contrary to the evidence). Both are larger-than-life television personas. Both spin their outsider, businessman experience as providing them with the secret knowledge they need to “fix” the country. And both are pulling in masses of supporters from most parts of the country.

But that’s about the extent of it. O’Leary is adopting a broad, socially-liberal, pro-business program that is pro-choice, pro-legalization, and pro-LGBTQ. On immigration, O’Leary constantly talks up his own Lebanese roots. Most of his platform is concerned with increasing Canada’s competitiveness and productivity. Listen to an O’Leary speech and you’ll be inundated with facts and figures. Ontario had growth of negative 0.7% last quarter. Labour participation rate is down 4%. Follicles on my head are at zero.

An obsession with balanced budgets consume a large chunk of his platform. Interestingly, for a candidate running on his financial chops, he often conflates annual budget deficits with overall government debt. This is all standard-issue conservative boilerplate, but O’Leary delivers it in a way that will ensure his own defeat in a general election.

The outlandish things O’Leary has said in the past aren’t going to be the barrier to his re-election. He’s said he would outlaw union membership; that poverty is socially beneficial because it acts as an incentive for the less fortunate; and that soldiers shouldn’t be proud of serving their country. But Trump has shown us that outlandish statements alone are insufficient to stop an otherwise popular candidate.

But you need to be otherwise popular. Being a loud accountant won’t get you there. O’Leary’s problem is that, at least thus far, he’s been unable to show how these abstract economic indicators actually impact on people’s lives. Everyone knows GDP growth is good, and that 3% is better than 2%. Everyone would rather the HST be lower while also getting more for it. But these headline numbers soar over the heads of a lay audience. A winning candidate has the ability to explain how these indicia matter to an “average, middle class” (read: likely-to-vote) household. Justin Trudeau won the election because he was able to show those middle class voters what impact his election would have in concrete terms. By taxing the wealthy just a little bit and increasing deficits just a touch, he said he’d be able to deliver real change to voters’ lives. Conservative attempts to explain that this wouldn’t work didn’t offer a competing narrative to voters, and so the Tories lost.

A leader who focuses CPC messaging on pure economics won’t be able to connect with voters. A loud, brash leader who insists he has all the answers because he’s smart won’t connect with voters. O’Leary appeals to a narrow section of the CPC base that thinks doubling down on doctrine is the answer. He isn’t the Trump of Canada: he’s our Jeremy Corbyn.

Like Corbyn, he doesn’t have much caucus support. Unlike Trump, who could capitalize on a momentum-building primary race in a general election that immediately followed, O’Leary and Corbyn have to sit around on the opposition benches for years before anyone starts paying them any attention. O’Leary can’t use the immediacy of this race to springboard into the next.

Meanwhile, the hundred-odd CPC MPs who remain are holding the safest CPC seats in the country. They held their seats against the most popular Liberal leader in twenty years. They should all win re-election, and the only thing that could stop them is a horrifically unpopular leader. He can’t really hurt them, but he can’t help them either. They will wait and bide their time for the next leader. It’s unlikely that mass defections or a leadership challenge will emerge. But caucus won’t be willing to do anything to help O’Leary, knowing that he’ll likely be tossed in 2019 if the Party doesn’t make substantial gains.
And so, like Labour in the UK, the CPCand Canadawill be blessed, or cursed, with one-party rule for the foreseeable future. This might appeal to some die-hard partisans, but good government needs strong opposition.