Opinion Column

Furey

Tories should thank O'Leary for bringing excitement

By Anthony Furey, Postmedia Network

Kevin O'Leary. (Stan Behal/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)

Kevin O'Leary. (Stan Behal/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)

The federal Conservatives owe Kevin O’Leary a big thank you for one main reason. He brought energy to the race and he brought excitement.

The fact he was even considering entering the leadership last year was big news. His eventual entry in January was even bigger news. And his decision to drop out and endorse Maxime Bernier that he announced on Wednesday afternoon was a headline-grabbing shocker. O’Leary delivered drama every step of the way.

This is nothing to scoff at either. It gave the public the perception that this was a vital race in which every move mattered. Right now, the federal NDP is also having a leadership race. And the general public couldn’t care less. The Tories could have found themselves in a similar spot were it not for O’Leary’s theatrical bid.

The reality-TV star filled rooms wherever he went. He brought plenty of new members to the party. And he got people who didn’t even follow politics outside of an election campaign to pay attention to the race to replace Stephen Harper. It was quite something.

I’ll never forget being at a party at a downtown Ottawa bar during the Manning Conference earlier this year and watching throngs of young people hold up their cellphones to capture a shot of O’Leary passing them. I’ve never seen anything like this before in Canadian politics, other than those seeking selfies from Justin Trudeau.

Ultimately, it just wasn’t in the cards for the provocative businessman. This shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. He’d previously said that if he didn’t win a majority in 2019, he’d step down as leader. It was a bizarre remark but basically showed that he only wanted to win and win big, nothing else.

He’d made it to the front of the polls in terms of first-ballot support but only hovered around 20-25%. Not enough to win on the first ballot. So he’d need ample second ballot support to chalk up a win, which his team likely concluded he didn’t have.

Besides, it was always hard to picture him spending two years chugging along as opposition leader, waiting out the next election in relative quiet. And when I pressed O'Leary on my radio show to commit to dropping out of his TV gigs if he won the race, he refused, saying he’d decide only when he was forced to make the decision. There were clearly always commitment issues.

The two big liabilities for the campaign was that O’Leary’s French was nearly non-existent and he was shaky on the policy front. He made bizarre comments on a whole slew of topics, ranging from selling Senate seats to a perceived soft stance on fighting ISIS. And it sure didn’t help that he seemed to spend more time in the United States than in Canada.

What he did have though was a sense of leadership. He didn’t back down on any subject and everything he said was said with passion. And he made it clear the No. 1 job of the leader is to go after Justin Trudeau in the next election.

It was quite the ride – with lots of great headlines and soundbites. In the years ahead, we’ll look back and chuckle at this strange interlude, when a reality-TV star living in Boston tried to become prime minister. Just don’t forget, he did the party good.