Stanley HarttNo, rumoured Tory leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary is not The Donald, writes Stanley H. Hartt. But the estrangement of large swaths of the electorate is happening in both countries, resulting in potential momentum for a brash outsider.

By Stanley H. Hartt, April 1, 2016

After Super Tuesday, the establishment of the Republican Party in the U.S. panicked. It is hard to see what took them so long, since it had been evident for some time that Donald Trump, the “outsider” who continues to win state after state in the caucuses and primaries, was astonishingly and resiliently popular among a substantial element of the voting public.  There is a simple explanation as to why: at some point, ordinary citizens get fed up and are unwilling to take it any more from the political class with their well-worn electoral playbook of fund-raising, polling, managing their ground games and blah, blah, blah rhetoric.

Of course, the refreshing non-politician does not have to be a self-important iconoclast, boorish in his stump speech, with a look of bullying disdain carved into his pursed lips. But the fact that the prospect of this caricature of the ugly American meeting with Angela Merkel or François Hollande and telling them, in his most offensive manner, how the world ought to work, does not generate shudders among his supporters speaks volumes. Stunningly misogynistic and xenophobic, as politically incorrect as conceivable, chillingly jack-booted as he urges supporters to beat up protesters at his rallies, The Donald astonishingly appears to be what the people want.

As the Republican party establishment lurched from improvised strategy to conditioned-reflex overreaction, the conventional wisdom shifted tectonically from “everyone needs to stay in” to “we must make this a one-on-one race”, anything to ensure that the blond interloper arrives at the convention in Cleveland in July with fewer delegates than the 50 percent + 1 needed to win. That, presumably, would permit the power brokers to twist arms and apply pressure to secure the nomination for someone else. At this writing, Ted Cruz and John Kasich may still be able to garner enough support to take the decision to the convention floor.

Perhaps the time has come for the Conservative Party to remove the rule that prohibits the Interim leader from seeking the permanent leader’s role.

The most important take-away from all this is not limited to the United States of America. When defiant tub-thumpers build strong staying power in electoral support, the fault should not be ascribed to the failings of the populist rebel alone. Disengaged working people, youth and minority groups, as well as mainstream voters who have suffered from the cruel gyrations of an economy which the elected elites have failed to monitor or manage for the general benefit, will usually send a message to their representative. That message, forged in anger and frustration, will not necessarily be conceived or couched in diplomatic terms. The middle finger comes to mind. “A plague on all your houses”.

The rising anger appears to be attracted to clownish exaggeration, a personal history that ought to disqualify a candidate from serious consideration, and rhetoric that purposely inflames. The policies might not be workable, but it is cathartic to contemplate them.

So in Britain, Boris Johnson (who looks like Donald Trump’s twin brother separated at birth) has forcefully taken up the cause of the UK leaving the European Union. Italy thrust Silvio Berlusconi into high office, despite tabloid-inspiring scandals and misadventures. France has the Le Pens, and as for Germany, no one wants to mention the parallels. Canada has had its Réal Caouettes and “Bible Bill” Aberharts.

The Conservative Party of Canada will soon embark on a leadership race to replace former Prime Minister Harper. The question is will it resemble in a number of undesirable ways the spectacle currently unfolding south of the border?

The first comparison Canada’s Tories should want to avoid is a contest among 17 or so candidates presenting themselves at the outset. The Tower of Babel which results from too many office-seekers cackling at once obscures the Party’s message and undermines its ability to present itself as a coherent force to channel opposition to the government. It also permits the emergence of fringe players who sew up a marginal segment of the eligible vote and suck the air out of the room for more serious potential leaders.

Of the Party’s loyal servants in the crucible of electoral politics, a large number are currently exploring potential bids. Tony Clement, Kellie Leitch, Michael Chong, Jason Kenney and Maxime Bernier are all out there in candidacy-evaluation mode. Peter MacKay and Lisa Raitt have been less visible, but must be included in the same category. Many others are considered possibilities - (Brad Wall, for example, although he can’t be open about it until the provincial election is decided). Many individuals from outside the political arena have also been speaking to their inner circles about whether their candidacy would be helpful or even have a chance.

One candidate has been quite vocal about the legitimacy of his being considered in a run for the CPC leadership. While on some levels, it would be odious to suggest a comparison between Kevin O’Leary and Donald Trump, the parallels are there. Both have been successful participants in Reality TV shows (The Apprentice, where Trump took pleasure in telling young applicants for business roles, “You’re fired!”; and, for O’Leary, those melodramatic distortions of how business people make investment decisions known as Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank). Both have been successful in their business careers, a few ups and downs in each case notwithstanding. Neither has any actual political experience. Both are outspoken gadflies who love to rail against the accepted wisdom of the powers that be.

Known for his brutal honesty and brusque and assertive style, O’Leary extolls greed and worships money as the essential building blocks of a free-enterprise capitalist system. He has sternly called out the NDP premier of Alberta for the way she has been managing the province’s economy in the wake of the collapse of resource prices. While he claims that the comparison with Trump stops there, and on the level of personality and political philosophy that is undoubtedly true, it is in his potential for galvanizing the public’s political discontent that the similarity re-emerges. Canada and the US are very different political systems and societies, but the estrangement from the process by large swaths of the electorate is happening in both countries, resulting in potential momentum for the untried and unproven

The political pendulum in both countries swings to the left, then right, then left again, though not always in synch.  When voters in either country feel that austerity has pinched them too much, they opt for the tax and spend folks. When the latter drive the country into fiscal exhaustion, they once again call on the hard-nosed managers to clean up the mess, before once again rewarding hope and “sunny ways”. Thus, in our last election in Canada, though the anger and frustration was not akin to what is going on in America now, voters opted for a young handsome, idealistic leftist who could be described as “Obama light”. The issue thus is what form will our discourse take when the inevitable disappointment sets in and it is time to once again restore fiscal rectitude and tough love, a phenomenon currently palpable south of the border.

Stephen Harper can be seen as a highly principled Conservative who represented Canada’s “Tea Party light” in many of the stances taken during his majority mandate, a position of power that the purist conservatives in the U.S. have never achieved, thus making it clear that Canada sometimes precedes the U.S. in the pendulum’s cycle. But if the Conservatives want to limit Trudeau fils to a single term, the challenge will be to decide whether they would be better to select a shrill detractor of the political status quo or a consensus builder to enlarge the Party’s accessible vote by reaching out to the disaffected groups with constructive, inclusive, common sense plans.

Of course, we in Canada don’t have primaries, so the politicking doesn’t have to be front and centre each and every news cycle. But the Conservative Party has just decided that its leadership vote will be a full 14 months from now, so the prospect of endless televised debates and media prognostications about winners and losers is real. The media circus emphasizes the insults and barbs flying among the rivals and detracts from the focus on sound policy choices in an endless race.

It is rumoured that Jason Kenney, the CPC’s master of outreach to Canada’s diverse ethnic communities and one of the major architects of the 2011 Conservative majority, is pondering his future because he worries about being seen as another Caucasian male Christian fundamentalist from the West leading the conservative movement again. It is said that Kenney may be contemplating a move to unite the right in Alberta, by leading a merger of the Progressive Conservative Party and the Wild Rose. But if he does decide to be a candidate for Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, the country would be far better off with his qualities than the abrasive trash-talking of a Dragon or Shark who is prepared to offer instant nostrums in place of profoundly thought-out policy options. Of course, we don’t want a wall on our border. We are generous to immigrants and refugees and don’t propose to ban all members of a given religion or characterize all undocumented immigrants from a neighbouring state as rapists and drug dealers. And no one would suggest Mr. O’Leary shares those kinds of extreme views with Mr. Trump, but we still need to be careful not to abdicate our political process to facile demagoguery just because we are cheesed off.

Peter MacKay was the early frontrunner in a recent poll of prospective Tory candidates, with O’Leary coming second. MacKay may appear to be entitled to his “shot”, having parented the unification between the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, then stepped back to allow the Harper era to unfold. But Peter needs to step up the dynamism of his speaking style and acknowledge and engage with those issues that are generating so much electoral momentum among the marginalized. They dislike the political status quo in our country as much as their counterparts in our neighbour to the South. Handsome, young and dynamic, he ought to be appealing, but the charisma is missing.

Many of the others are considering throwing their hats in the ring to improve their visibility among voters, perhaps so their talent can be recognized when Cabinet posts are next given out to Tories. Others are basing their willingness to ponder a contest for the top job on the fact there is no clear front runner. If Kenney were to announce early, that might limit the field to a reasonable number consistent with putting the party’s best foot forward.

Perhaps the time has come for the Conservative Party to remove the rule that prohibits the Interim leader from seeking the permanent leader’s role. It is generally agreed that Rona Ambrose is doing an excellent job and could be just what the Party really needs. She is extremely effective in Question Period and on television, with a knack for formulating her arguments in an even-handed, matter-of-fact tone while making her point precisely and persuasively.

But if preventing someone like O’Leary from shocking the insiders and seizing the sentiment of the disenchanted masses, as Trump has done south of the border, is the goal, then the party big-wigs need to decide early whom to back. While mindful of the will of the people, there needs to be some policy coherence behind a Conservative Party renewal that will enhance their potential to regain power and not turn the contest into a divisive battle of belittling put-downs from strong personalities who despise the political process and all it has become. The GOP establishment appears to have discounted Trump disastrously and put too little support behind, say, a Marco Rubio, who suffered a humiliating defeat in the state which he represents as a sitting Senator and was forced to withdraw from the race.

O’Leary’s address to the recent Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa was described by one journal as “typically bombastic”. Trump University offers a degree in bombast. We will not likely see O’Leary steaks or wine marketed alongside untested political nostrums, but, like Trump, O’Leary’s mantra appears to be “whatever works”. “Earned” (i.e. free) media, where coverage is derived from merely being colourful, would be equally easy to generate here.

Stanley Herbert Hartt, OC, QC is a lawyer, lecturer, businessman, and civil servant. He currently serves as counsel at Norton Rose Fulbright Canada. Previously Mr. Hartt was chairman of Macquarie Capital Markets Canada Ltd. Before this he practised law as a partner for 20 years at a leading Canadian business law firm and was chairman of Citigroup Global Markets Canada and its predecessor Salomon Smith Barney Canada. Mr. Hartt also served as chairman, president and CEO of Campeau Corporation, deputy minister at the Department of Finance and, in the late 1980s, as chief of staff in the Office of the Prime Minister.

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