They could be billed as the Odd Couple of Canadian politics: Andrew Scheer and Kevin O’Leary.
Yet there they were last week, the federal Conservative leader and the Canadian-born celebrity from U,S. television’s Shark Tank, on the hustings together as the Tories tested their training wheels for next October’s federal election.
O’Leary, it will be recalled, wanted to be prime minister and even ran against Scheer for the Conservative leadership in 2017, and might have won, until he remembered he couldn’t speak French, whereupon he withdrew in favour of Scheer’s rival, Maxime Bernier, who has since abandoned the Conservative party, having found it to be “morally corrupt,’ and started his own People’s Party of Canada, which is attacking Scheer’s party from the populist right, thereby bringing the populist O’Leary riding to Scheer’s rescue.
Got all that? No?
To simplify, O’Leary has two political assets that Scheer lacks: he has star power – he attracts attention wherever he goes; and he knows how to pitch a political message in simple, direct terms to the Conservative base. Maxime Bernier also has that knack, as does the bombastic Doug Ford in Ontario. Scheer doesn’t have it at all.
Consider their appearance at a session with students at Ryerson University last week. Scheer promised to bring a “positive Conservative vision” to Canada, without revealing what that vision might be. Meanwhile, O’Leary cut to the chase: “We need a new manager, we need a new government, we need new policy.”
The country, he declared, needs saving from “weak, weak managers. … The whole cabinet is weak. It's a spatula we need. ... Scrape it clean and start again.”
The spatula-scrape-it-clean image sticks. Scheer’s “positive Conservative vision” is lost in the fog of pedestrian political rhetoric. It may help to explain why the Conservatives are running a poor second to the Liberals in the polls at a time in the political cycle when the opposition should be able to push the government to the wall.
The Conservative problem surfaced again a couple of days later when General Motors’ decision to close its century-old Oshawa vehicle assembly operation, a plant that once manufactured one-million cars a year for the North American market, came up in Question Period.
Scheer could reasonably have attacked the Liberals for not anticipating the GM action, or for not attempting to head it off. Instead he attacked the Liberals’ carbon tax, asking the prime minister, “Now that we have seen the impact of this policy, chasing future jobs and investment away, will he do the right thing and cancel his carbon tax?”
General Motors is engaged in a restructuring of its global operations to meet the reality of a future in which cars and trucks will run on electricity, not gasoline or diesel. Although Premier Ford’s known hostility to electric vehicles may not have helped, no one knowledgeable in the industry thinks the carbon tax – which would add an estimated $30 to the cost of a $22,000 car – was a factor in the GM decision.
The Conservatives’ fixation on the carbon tax, and their inability to come up with a viable approach of their own to combat global warming, undermine their election strategy. They need to persuade Canadians that they can govern the country better than the Liberals because Conservatives offer superior policies and more effective management.
But does anyone believe that Andrew Scheer could do a better job than Justin Trudeau in dealing with the mercurial Donald Trump? Would he have been able to get Trans Mountain to build the pipeline that Alberta desperately needs to get its oil to market? Would he have the flexibility to handle the flow of refugees into Canada without barring them at the border?
Scheer is no dummy. Perhaps he can outperform Trudeau. He is going to have to convince Canadians of that. But barnstorming with Kevin O’Leary seems counter-productive, because sharing a mic with such an over-sized personality simply highlights Scheer’s deficiencies as a retail politician.