Kevin O’Leary entered the race for the Conservative Party leadership on Jan. 18, 2017. What follows is a Q&A almost a year before he made his decision to jump into the fray.
Kevin O’Leary has conquered two tough businesses on both sides of the border: first the corporate world and then television, where he appeared on the hit shows Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank. Now the Montreal native is musing about running for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership. (This week, a poll showed him neck-and-neck with former cabinet minister Peter MacKay in a race that hasn’t even really begun.) O’Leary spoke to Maclean’s from his Florida rental about federal politics and his offer to invest $1 million in Alberta if Premier Rachel Notley resigns. This transcript has been edited.
Q. You’ve obviously been a successful leader in business. What draws you to politics?
A. You know, I’m primarily a Canadian investor and citizen and taxpayer. This whole thing started as a result of a dialogue I seem to be having in the press and social media with Rachel Notley regarding her stewardship of Alberta, which I think is subpar, to say the least. I’m watching the Canadian dollar and I’m watching what’s happening in employment in Canada and I’m watching Canadian GDP, and I think we could do way better.
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Let’s just start with the dollar. The Canadian dollar is the stock of Canada. The weaker it gets, the weaker we are as an economy, to be able to buy goods and services from abroad, equipment that we need to remain productive and competitive. Most of the dollar is people’s perception—whether they want to invest in Canada. You can’t invest in Suncor, you can’t invest in Canadian Oil Sands, unless you want to translate your dollars into Canadian dollars. You have American dollars, you want to translate them into Canadian, you have to buy Canadian dollars.When there’s no demand to buy Canadian dollars because there’s no interest in investment in Canada, the dollar falls. There’s a lack of confidence at the provincial level in the largest sector.
[Notley has] got to go back to the playbook, [to] the last time her economy collapsed and what was done then in a partnership between the province and the feds. You have to immediately accelerate capital cost allowance—in other words, get people around the world to see a very attractive opportunity to invest in Alberta.
Secondly, you take the royalty rates down to zero for 36 months so that people find a very attractive, relatively stable period of time by which they can get returns and take risks while commodity is collapsing. You immediately reverse that 20 per cent increase in corporate taxes. That was a crazy move at a time when the commodity was collapsing.
Regarding carbon taxes, you defer that decision so you can attract capital. I have no problem in initiatives there, as long as everybody’s on the same page, and I mean our competitors in China and the United States and everybody involved in energy. It’s a good initiative but now is not the time to run around the world explaining that’s all you care about as the premier of Alberta.
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Lastly on that agenda, she shouldn’t be in Alberta, she should be in Ottawa cutting a deal with the feds so that the next 63,000 people don’t lose their jobs. We need to keep that braintrust working in the private companies. If the CEOs of those companies were confident enough that they were getting support from the government, they wouldn’t be firing all of their talented workforce because that makes us less competitive when energy comes back.
Q: A criticism of you is that you don’t speak French. That’s generally considered necessary to be a party leader in Canada. How would you get around that?
A: Perhaps it was necessary in the past. It isn’t now. I’m born of Irish and Lebanese blood in Montreal. Quebec is in my blood. I understand exactly how Quebec operates. What you need is respect from the people of every province. Quebec’s around 20% of our population and 40% of our personality. That’s the way I look at that province.
Q: You had a take-no-prisoners style on Dragons’ Den. Do you think that kind of brutal honesty will work in politics?
A: I think it’s what’s lacking in politics. It’s exactly what’s lacking. If you look at what happened in that last election, there’s a whole new generation of voting constituents in Canada that want to go in a new direction. And the Conservative party misread it. That’s why they lost. If you look at any successful political party in any democratic society, they’re skilled at being able to read the subtle change in the voting constituent. They know they have to understand that change is constantly happening, and then they put mandates forward to lead the voter there. I prefer to always speak the truth. That way I never have to remember what I said.
Q: Do you think that might offend people in a way that loses you their vote?
A: Yes. That does happen, but I think in the long run, being honest, brutally honest, is the only way to go. You know, I think leadership is defined the same way in business as it is in politics. You have to pick a point you want to get to, you have to explain how you’re going to get there, you have to execute and you have to tell the truth along the way. It’s when you falter from any of those methods [that] you fail. Canadians are unique in one respect: we’re a very inclusive society. You have to make sure when you plot a path you understand the psyche of Canada, and I think that’s another area where recent politicians have failed. And there is no tolerance for a mistake in that area.
Q: You’ve been compared to Donald Trump. But perhaps that’s not apt when you’re talking about tolerance.
A: Yeah, I think there are some comparisons that are valid. Certainly both Trump and I have been involved in television in the United States and we’ve enjoyed success in the areas of business reality TV, he in The Apprentice and I in Shark Tank. It does give you access to the media—that’s why you and I are talking right now. But the discussion we’re having regarding the mandates that are going to be required to manage Canada versus what Trump has to deal with in the U.S. are completely different. There’s no need to build walls in Canada. We’re a very inclusive society. We’re very proud of it, every Canadian feels that way, you don’t have to debate that mandate. There’s a populist movement afoot [in the U.S.] . . . that he’s tapped into that doesn’t exist in Canada. So I don’t think there’s any similarities after reality TV. These are two different problems.
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Q: We don’t yet know the rules for the Conservative leadership race. You haven’t started looking at a fundraising team. If you were to run, you’d be up against some long-time politicians who have deep ties to the Conservative party. How do you take on people like that?
A: First of all, I don’t really need to set up a fundraising campaign right now. I happen to have some funds. So I can check the box there myself.
Q. But you can’t spend your own money, in Canada, on this.
A. The first $25,000 you can [laughs]. The way I look at it is: no one’s going to be doing any of that yet, no one’s going to be spending anything until we get [the rules]. There are some structural decisions that have not yet been made. And by the way, while we’re on the topic of the next election, I’m pretty sure there will be two leadership races in play: the Conservative and Liberal party. I don’t think things are going to work out for Mr. Trudeau if this is his first few months in terms of what he is dealing with in the economy. I see a very dim future for these high-taxation, high-spend policies, and they’ll come home to roost long before the next election.
Q: Then would you consider running for the Liberals?
A: I would consider finding a way that I can affect the outcome of bad decisions economically. Because there are three major mandates that are going to merge in the next election: jobs, jobs and jobs. That’s it. Anything else is secondary. We should be right now worried about the cohorts trying to find work in Canada: the young people that are graduating and those that are highly skilled in sectors like energy that are losing their jobs by the thousands. Absolutely, everybody involved in an election is going to raise capital, but it’s going to be after they’ve defined their vision of what the country should look like and how it should be managed. It’s no different from going on the road and raising capital. What’s the largest business in Canada? Canada. What’s the largest business in Alberta? Alberta. I actually think one of the rules the Conservative party should consider is . . . that you can’t chase the leadership unless you spend two years making payroll. I really believe that, because when I look at the challenges ahead for leaders in any party, given that we’re flatlining on GDP growth in Canada, the No. 1 responsibility they have is to make sure Canadians have employment opportunity.
Q: That would have ruled out Stephen Harper as a leader.
A: That’s the past. I’m talking about the future.
Q: Let’s play this out. If you became Conservative leader and eventually prime minister, you’d have to put your investments into a blind trust. Would you be ok with giving up that control?
A: Absolutely. Everybody has to face that decision. And there’s really great managers, I know many of them, that could do that. That’s not why I would do this. If I do this, and I put a big if on this because everybody else that’s looking at this is saying the same thing, I would want to make sure I’m coming into this with a team of people that I think have executional skills to manage our way out of this mess. This wouldn’t be about Kevin O’Leary’s personality. It’s irrelevant. What it’ll be is about a leadership mandate and a team of people, of men and women, that are willing to take on that difficult task of moving the country forward. And the only reason you do that is you’re ready in your head. That you want to do that. It’s a tough job. You know politics are brutal. But I’d argue, so is the board room. I like seasoned professionals that have been successful on both sides. There are many great men and women in government now, that can do it, and there’s some that can’t. One of them that can’t is Rachel Notley. She’s killing us. She’s got to go.