There are many things that are crazy about the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership race. In May, the roots of the party of Sir John A. Macdonald will meet up with the modern day reality of anything-being-possible in politics.
I remember Brian Mulroney telling Canadians when he launched his successful leadership bid in 1983 to “hold on to your hats,” just as I recall Jean Chrétien telling people in his first unsuccessful leadership attempt in 1984 to “fasten your seat belts because it’s going to be a hell of a ride.” They were both right.
The intensity of a major party’s leadership race is fierce and, in almost all cases, it is civil war. Brothers and sisters of the same family try to beat each other in a take-no-prisoners atmosphere that often leaves scars and bitterness that never subside. There was a long-serving member of Parliament I learned a lot from, and I can still hear him saying that, years after a leadership race, members of a political party can go to a policy convention, look into people’s eyes and instantly know which side they were on.
I also remember my first day on the job as a parliamentary reporter at the Quebec National Assembly. It was 40 years ago when I first took my seat in the press gallery and a veteran reporter from the Montreal Gazette walked by and told me there was a basic lesson about politics I should know. He told me to look down where the members are and realize that if I took any of them out for a drink, that after just one scotch, they would tell me they should be leader of their party.
Scotch is the only possible rationale for 14 candidates being in the current Conservative leadership race. There are so many men and women vying for the crown that they fall over each other on stage when there is a leadership debate, they bang on the same doors of donors for money and, because they need so desperately to make names for themselves to be noticed, there are some desperate policy suggestions that make “progressive” Conservatives sick to their stomachs.
What is strange is that the interim leader is not on that long list of too many contenders. Rona Ambrose is still seen by many Conservatives as the best candidate the party doesn’t have, but there’s no changing the fact that she’s not on the ballot.
Technically, Ambrose couldn’t run because that was a condition for being interim leader. But the Conservatives could have changed that rule to accommodate her. Then again, had she wanted to be leader, she would have passed on the interim job. It is a safe assumption that Ambrose is a rare breed of politician who can thoughtfully say no to the limelight.
With no obvious frontrunner, the door swung open for a Trump-like outsider to blast in from a world far away from the buzz, machinations and gossip of Parliament Hill. Is a Kevin O’Leary victory possible? The formula is actually simple to explain. We live in the age of celebrity.
But, to compare one reality-TV businessman to another, it has to be said that, from all available evidence, past and present, O’Leary is not the impulsive lying bully that Donald Trump is. O’Leary is more tolerant, more reasonable, more grounded and, above all, more moderate. But he is equally as slick with his one-liners. He is aggressive, smug and, undoubtedly, an opportunist trying to hijack the Conservative Party.
O’Leary is the kind of successful individual who would not be in this race if he hadn’t diligently done his homework and assessed his chance of winning. High-end research informed him it would be far from a clear path, but that he could win.
His celebrity as a TV star is really the only thing that leapfrogged him to the top end of the Conservative pack. He knows it. We know it. Lucky him.
How irritating it must be for all the other contenders who doggedly slugged it out for years as long-serving MPs and cabinet ministers.
Now we wait to see if celebrity in Canada can trump everything else.