Kevin O'Leary adds spark to conservative efforts to recharge

O'Leary, a prospective candidate for the Conservative Party leadership, isn't worried that he doesn't speak French

Television personality and businessman Kevin O'Leary takes part in a panel discussion of ABC's reality series "Shark Tank" during the 2013 Winter Press Tour. (Gus Ruelas/Reuters)

Television personality and businessman Kevin O’Leary takes part in a panel discussion of ABC’s reality series “Shark Tank” during the 2013 Winter Press Tour. (Gus Ruelas/Reuters)

OTTAWA – As Conservatives gather to recharge their political batteries in the wake of last year’s federal election defeat, outspoken businessman Kevin O’Leary is looking to jump-start the party on his own.

Though he insists he’s politically agnostic, O’Leary — mulling a run for the federal Conservative leadership — was making the rounds Friday at the annual Manning Centre conference, shaking hands, posing for photos and laying out his thoughts on the direction of the country.

“The key to the Conservative party is to forget about the past — it is completely irrelevant, nobody gives a damn about political brand anymore, they want solutions,” O’Leary said.

“And even more so in 9 months, 10 months, three years, there’ll be a whole constituency of voters in Canada that are going to be very, very, very pissed off.”

O’Leary, a longtime businessman whose brash, shoot-from-the-lip style proved popular with TV audiences when he got into broadcasting, says it is still too early for him to formally throw his hat in the leadership ring.

But he is at the conference to speak at a panel Friday set aside for potential federal leadership candidates. He’ll be joined by longtime Tory MP Michael Chong; on Saturday, several other potential contenders will also speak on the same topic.

One knock against O’Leary’s potential candidacy may be that he doesn’t speak French, but he said that doesn’t matter.

“I believe the language that is going to matter in the next election is going to be that of economics and jobs,” he said. “That’s what people in Quebec are going to care about.”

What cost the Tories the last election wasn’t their fiscal policy, but their social policy, he added, alluding to the divisive debate over the niqab.

“When I was waiting with my son to vote early in the last election, with 60 people in that line in Toronto, the only thing they were talking about were racial issues brought forward by the Conservative party,” he said.

“It took them down and so it should have. That is un-Canadian.”

What’s underway in the world is a populist movement where people are making direct demands on their politicians to solve their problems and don’t care about political brands, he continued — a phenomenon he’s convinced will manifest itself more and more in Canada in the coming years.

As the founder of the Reform Party, which many considered a populist movement in Canada, Preston Manning still has faith in party lines.

He said the challenge ahead for conservatives is staying true to their values while also expanding them.

Conservatives have always been strong on economics, now they need to grow their strength in areas like health care, the environment and education. While those are admittedly provincial issues, a rebirth of the party at that level will filter up, he said.

There’s a generational change underway in the conservative movement, Manning said, and what that means for the federal Tories is a need to find a leader who can unite many different factions.

“Modern political parties are coalitions, there are different flavours of conservatism,” he said.

“…the challenge for leadership is how to find the common ground.”