OTTAWA – He’s a household name in Canada and the U.S., and Kevin O’Leary intends to use audiences in both to convince Canadians he’s the right man to lead this country.
Millions of Americans watch his reality TV show “Shark Tank” each week, making him a household name in a country that’s overhauling all of its international relationships, O’Leary said in a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press.
Case in point: on Tuesday, O’Leary met Conservative MPs, and later glad-handed with party members whose support he needs to become leader; this morning, he was planning to be on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for the opening bell.
He said he would be talking up the Canadian economy and trade in a way the current Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has failed to do in the weeks since U.S. President Donald Trump was elected.
“This is an opportunity for me to do something I don’t believe any Canadian’s had an opportunity to do,” O’Leary said.
“I’ve built a trust over a decade with them on television, and to be able to explain our relationship in a unique way, in a way that they will trust. Trudeau? I’m better known in the U.S. than he is.”
Those conversations are part of a long game O’Leary said he’s playing when it comes to carving out his path to victory in the Conservative leadership race, a campaign that comes to a close May 27 when members choose a permanent new leader.
The moment O’Leary called his now-campaign chair to confirm he would run came just before Christmas, when the federal Finance Department issued a report predicting budget shortfalls until at least 2051, with debt levels exceeding $1.55 trillion.
The thought of his two adult children buried by that kind of debt was unthinkable, O’Leary said.
It’s his kids — 20-year-old Trevor and 23-year-old Savannah — that seem to be serving as the touchpoints for O’Leary’s nascent political campaign.
He said he intends to win by targeting voters in the 18-to-35 demographic and convincing them to first join the party, and then to back him in 2019 for prime minister.
His secret weapon? They’ve seen him on TV.
“There’s no other candidate that connects with the young with the way I can,” he said. “They grew up with me; I’ve been on television forever.”
While he’s running on an economic platform first, on social issues he said he intends to be where his kids are on the political spectrum. And in 2015, neither of them voted Conservative.
So when his daughter tells him that protecting and championing the rights of lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex Canadians is important, he listens, he said.
And to social conservatives within the party who don’t agree, or who don’t want to legalize marijuana or permit doctor-assisted dying, he has a simple question: “Do you want to win a majority government?”
He’s already providing hints of what life might look like under an O’Leary majority government.
A series of angry letters he’s been trading with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who he blames for destroying the Ontario economy, is partially about setting a tone, he suggested.
Any province that gets in the way of his plan to get the country to 3 per cent growth in GDP will feel the heat, he said.
“Call me when you fix it or suffer the consequences of a prime minister with a big stick,” O’Leary said. “There’s many many tools you have as a prime minister — you start at transfer payments all the way down.”
Since announcing he was joining the race in late January, O’Leary said his campaign has signed up 9,000 members and raised $300,000, an effort he said that dwarfs that of any of the 13 other candidates in the race.
Fundraising numbers released Tuesday show Maxime Bernier raised $586,000 during the final three months of 2016, with Kellie Leitch, the next closest candidate, came in at more than $355,000.