Opinion

Will Conservatives Court a Dragon’s Den Death Wish with Kevin O’Leary?

Right-wing celeb’s quotes, deals are a ready source for other parties’ attack ads.

By Bill Tieleman 3 Jan 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

“Elect me as prime minister for 15 minutes. I will make unions illegal. Anybody who remains a union member will be thrown in jail.”Kevin O’Leary, likely Conservative leadership candidate, in 2011

Does the federal Conservative Party have a Dragon’s Den death wish?

Because if so, Kevin O’Leary is the perfect leadership candidate to take them into a fire-breathing election disaster in 2019.

O’Leary has been wrongly compared to U.S. Republican President-elect Donald Trump because both are loudmouthed, boastful right-wing businessmen who have become famous through reality television shows — CBC’s Dragons’ Den and ABC’s Shark Tank for O’Leary, NBC’s The Apprentice for Trump — but have no experience in elected office at any level of government.

But Trump is a successful billionaire who won a tough set of primaries against veteran politicians to become the Republican candidate and defeated overwhelming favourite Hillary Clinton for the presidency.

By comparison, O’Leary is a mere millionaire whose business acumen has been severely questioned by analysts and condemned by former business partners. He is a unilingual English speaker in a bilingual country where Quebec’s 78 seats are critical to forming government and has an extensive record of outrageous comments about a wide variety of organizations and people with long memories.

O’Leary has all but said he’ll run for the Conservative leadership, forming an “exploratory” committee last month. That would not only put him under an uncomfortable microscope, it would put a fire-breathing dragon in the Tories’ tent, one who could burn the whole thing down.

Take O’Leary’s attacks on unions, including the comment above on his former CBC television show the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, and consider that there are 5 million union members in Canada and there were 25.6 million registered voters in the 2015 election.

That means union members represent almost 20 per cent of potential voters.

But the actual turnout in that election was 17.5 million. And unions worked hard to get members to vote, spending millions on ads, voter contact, workplace leaflets and more, so they likely participated at a higher percentage than the general public.

Given that former prime minister Stephen Harper repeatedly attacked unions legislatively in his last term and they responded with strong campaigns against the Conservatives, helping lead to their defeat, one obvious question arises.

Why on earth would the Conservatives pick a new leader who would provoke unions way more than even Harper?

Why would they tell nearly 5 million union members to go to hell — that their votes aren’t wanted — years before the next election?

But here is O’Leary responding to Amanda Lang’s statement that unions have a right to strike in Canada.

“You have to fight evil with evil. You’ve got to take away those rights.... Unions themselves are borne of evil, they must be destroyed with evil, so you have to kill their contracts,” O’Leary said. “No one could contain unions in hell. They were so evil they came out of hell and they came upon earth.” 

Even Trump doesn’t spout nasty, over-the-top insults like that.

In fact, Trump made specific appeals to union members and the working class, successfully courting a significant number of union voters in key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan and targeting specific industrial sectors with strong unionization — the auto industry and coal mining, for example.

In the 2015 Canadian election, not all union members voted against the Conservatives. But Harper didn’t say unions were evil and their members should be imprisoned. While he brought in legislation that hurt unions, Harper focused his attacks on their leaders, not their members.

And while union members may not vote the way their leaders suggest — usually New Democrat, sometimes Liberal in strategic voting ridings — members do like their unions for the wages, job security, health and safety, medical and dental benefits and workplace representation that they get.

And they aren’t likely to trust the future of those benefits with a potential Conservative leader who makes wild, ridiculous statements about unions, even if he tries to walk them back in an election campaign by claiming he didn’t really mean it.

O’Leary has already practically written the scripts for multiple union attack ads on himself and his party before he even officially enters the race.

Even if attacking unions with biblical language isn’t enough to take O’Leary out of the running for some Conservatives, other issues should.

Not speaking French at all in 2017 should be enough to derail O’Leary’s campaign. It’s simply not plausible to expect to win any seats in Quebec with a unilingual Anglophone leader, so the Conservatives would be allowing the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois a huge advantage as they divide the ridings, currently 78, amongst themselves.

And then there are O’Leary’s claims of business prowess, which are dubious at best. In a lengthy examination of his track record in 2012, the Globe and Mail published damning information about O’Leary’s financial dealings.

In a devastating article titled “Kevin O’Leary: He’s not a billionaire, he just plays one on TV,” the newspaper detailed how he sold a company he partly owned called The Learning Company for about $4 billion to Mattel, the toy-making giant, in the spring of 1999. O’Leary also became president of Mattel’s TLC digital division at a $650,000 a year salary.

But Mattel’s expectation TLC would turn a $50 million profit in the third quarter of 1999 instead became an estimated loss of $50 to $100 million. Investors reacted by “wiping out more than $2 billion in shareholder value in one day, as the company’s share price slid from nearly $17 to $11.69,” The Globe and Mail reported. “The actual divisional loss for the quarter turned out to be $105 million; the next quarter, the loss was $206 million.”

Mattel fired O’Leary in November 1999, after only six months of a three-year contract, and in 2000 sold O’Leary’s TLC — which it paid $4 billion to buy — for just $27.3 million and a share of future profits. Businessweek called Mattel’s purchase of TLC one of “the Worst Deals of All Time” — and O’Leary was the esteemed seller.

The Worst Deal got even worse. Shareholders launched a class-action lawsuit and named O’Leary as one of the defendants. The suit alleged he was involved in insider trading and part of a plan to disguise TLC’s true financial state. O’Leary denied all the allegations in court filings.

Mattel settled the lawsuit in 2003 for $122 million. The Globe reported that O’Leary blamed Mattel mismanagement of TLC for the problems. “The legacy of The Learning Company I’m pretty proud of,” he told the newspaper.

Despite the size of the original sale of TLC, it didn’t make O’Leary a billionaire — he netted about $11.2 million from his severance package and the sale of Mattel shares he received as part of the sale, the article notes. Other TLC owners made the big money.

Business acumen? Not the kind you want to talk about in an election campaign.

On CBC’s Dragons’ Den, O’Leary was portrayed as a tough wheeler-dealer who drove hard bargains for an investment in the pitching entrepreneurs’ businesses and could reduce contestants to tears.

But the reality was different, The Globe and Mail reported. In 2009, contestant Neil Currie and his business partner asked the Dragons to invest in their online real-time stock quoting website. The wanted $150,000 for 15 per cent ownership. O’Leary offered to finance them — however he wanted 50 per cent. Currie and his partner agreed on the show, but could never get hold of O’Leary to finalize it and get the financing.

Ironically, their company soon became profitable without O’Leary’s name or money, doing $4 million in sales by 2011. Had the brilliant businessman followed through on his televised commitment, he would have made a dividend of nearly $500,000 that year.

Currie is relieved O’Leary didn’t honour his commitment: “Did he make the right decision? No, because he didn’t take the time to pick up the phone. We did dodge a bullet, that’s for sure... I’m glad he’s not my business partner.”

And again, do the Conservative want as their leader a man who doesn’t follow through on commitments — and loses money by not doing so?

Lastly, O’Leary’s ideology is not just anti-union — he is a hard right libertarian in a country where the Conservative Party’s predecessors knew the importance of the public sector and government support for a far-flung nation located next to a giant America.

In an interview with The Georgia Straight’s Charlie Smith in 2011, O’Leary made more comments that could come back to haunt the Conservatives should they be crazy enough to make him leader.

“We need to move this country far more to the right,” O’Leary told Smith. “Taxation rates are ridiculously high... I want to give as little money as I can to the government cause I think it goes there and it’s wasted.”

And O’Leary wouldn’t be a Conservative leader appealing to the poor or even the middle class.

“I want every Canadian to be filthy rich,” he said. “You talk about the one per cent having a significantly larger portion of the wealth. That’s true and we should celebrate it because it gives us an example for everybody else to aspire to.”

Why? Because “the wealthy carry the rest of society on their backs.” O’Leary has such a common touch.

Smash unions, jail their members, forget about speaking French, don’t look at his dubious business deals and celebrate the filthy rich one per cent he loves — Kevin O’Leary truly does bring a political Dragon’s Den death wish to the Conservative leadership campaign.  [Tyee]

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