Is Kevin O’Leary really serious about his promises?

From drones and referendums to high growth and ousting premiers, it’s time to take a closer look at what the Tory leadership front-runner is actually promising

When I turn my attention to the Conservative leadership race, I expect to hear discussion about lower taxes, smaller government and, of course, quizzing any foreigners who might want to set foot in Canada about their values.

But, just now, I’m pondering proposals for the military to fly drones instead of manned aircraft, for Canada to copy Switzerland’s unique direct-democracy model, and for a federal strategy of ousting certain provincial governments as the key to getting the country’s economy on track.

If you’re not on the same page, don’t beat yourself up. Kevin O’Leary pitched all these ideas, and others, in a question-and-answer session he staged on Feb. 28 at an Edmonton hotel. His campaign streamed the session on Facebook, opposite that evening’s televised official Conservative leaders’ debate, which O’Leary skipped, complaining that with 14 candidates in the race (it only seems like more) the format is pointless.

Mr. Wonderful’s solo Facebook show also had to compete with that evening’s oddly uncrazy Donald Trump address to Congress. It would be a shame, though, to let O’Leary’s outing pass unnoticed, since the celebrity investor and reality TV star—the leadership race’s front runner, according to polls—wasn’t exactly playing it safe. So here are some excepts, with my brief reactions:

He is all about winning the youth vote back from Trudeau.

O’Leary: “[Trudeau] motivated people between the ages of 18 to 35 to vote, and 82 per cent of them voted for him. That changed Canadian politics forever. If they stay motivated, and believe me, they are, no party can ever get a majority mandate again without winning at least 60 per cent of those voters. There hasn’t been a Conservative candidate in 15 years that ever got on a campus anywhere here in any Canadian university and wasn’t thrown stones at.”

Note: A youth push isn’t self-evident as a Conservative election strategy. For starters, O’Leary seems to be vastly overstating Trudeau’s edge, although it is formidable. Abacus Data estimates the Liberals actually got about 44 per cent of the votes cast by 18- to 36-year-olds in 2015, compared to the Tories’ 21 per cent share of Millennials’ votes. Others argue that O’Leary’s campus outreach approach is a long-odds strategy for the Tories, whose strong suit, like right-leaning parties all over, has typically been among older voters.

He aims to oust certain provincial governments, like Alberta’s and Ontario’s.

O’Leary: “Our provincial taxes are too high. Our corporate taxes are too high, and we have a carbon tax that no one else in North America has. That’s terrible. I have to repeal all of that. I have to get to Ottawa and erase all that and find… the equilibrium where we’re competitive. That’s the first thing. I also have to figure out a way to get rid of incompetence at the provincial level.” Later, on health care, he added: “The health care file is complicated. I swear I’ll work on it, but I’ve got to work with the provinces. I’ve got to change a few premiers.”

Note: O’Leary might be under a false impression of how voters tend to respond when a federal leader tells them whom to choose in provincial elections. University of British Columbia’s Richard Johnston, a renowned expert on parties and elections, with his colleague Fred Cutler, wrote in a 2003 paper called Popular Foundations of Divided Government in Canada that Canadian voters tend, over time, to elect different parties federally and provincially. Johnston and Culter noted that “federal-provincial divergence has been ubiquitous since at least the turn of the 20th century.”

He promises—promises, mind you—to make GDP grow by three per cent.

O’Leary: “I am making a promise to Canadians that I can grow the economy at three per cent. Canada works at three per cent. Health care works, education works, military spending works. It all works at three per cent…” But later O’Leary toned that down: “I’m trying to get to three per cent. It’s going to be hell on earth to get there. It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to expand our trade relationships outside the U.S. We’ve got to get into India, China. We’ve got to have a strong deal with the U.K. We’ve got to sell to all the European countries…”

Note: That’s quite a promise. The federal finance department’s latest long-term look at the economy says that deep demographic factors—aging, stagnating populations—are behind slowing growth all over the developed world. It projects average real GDP growth of 1.7 per cent in Canada from now to 2055. “The age-related deceleration in economic growth in Canada will take place amidst other powerful, slow-moving global forces,” Finance says. “As in Canada, the world population is aging and productivity growth has slowed across OECD countries. These structural forces are paving the way to slower global growth for the next number of years.”

He’s personally figured out that we should patrol our borders with drones:

O’Leary: “I just went through the budget. We spend $20 billion a year operating our military for really good men and women who risk their lives for us. We have the largest border on earth. We patrol it. I’m a bit of a military aircraft buff. We use CP-140 aircraft, twin turbo-prop planes to monitor our borders at an operating cost of $38,500 an hour. That’s insane. We can get a drone to do it for $800 an hour. We’ll be changing that, saving $2 billion… That’s just in an hour of looking at the income statement. I haven’t even got to work on that yet. There are so many opportunities.”

Note: The Canadian military indeed uses a fleet of 18 CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft, acquired back in the early 1980s, for surveillance over Canada’s long coasts. I asked a military spending expert (not a buff) what he thought of O’Leary’s estimate that the Royal Canadian Air Force could save $2 billion by switching to drones. He noted that saving one-tenth of the entire military budget with this single, highly debatable, idea seems like an awful lot.

He wants Canada to follow Switzerland by holding many referendums.

O’Leary: “When they get a contentious issue in Switzerland in the cantons, which are like our provinces… like a tax increase or a carbon tax proposal or reform on voting rights, they take it to the people. They go vote, yes [or] no. Both parties debate it for about 60 days. You need 35,000 signatures to get it and they do a referendum. The majority, 51 per cent, rules, and you don’t talk about it again for five years. We could use that system here in Canada on some very contentious issues like pipelines. Why let a mayor in a city block a pipeline?”

Note: Switzerland’s unique tradition of holding frequent referendums goes back to political turmoil the country had to overcome in the nineteenth century. In all that time, the Swiss direct democracy model hasn’t been replicated in other countries, and lately hasn’t looked all that attractive. A recent commentary from the Financial Times noted that populist parties have exploited the mechanism: “As early as 2009, voters supported a ban on the construction of new minarets. Two years ago, they backed the imposition of quotas on immigration, a decision that has thrown Switzerland’s relations with the EU into disarray.”

All these O’Leary quotes might read like off-the-cuff, just-for-the-sake-of-argument remarks. And, if he was merely a TV personality, that’s how I would hear them. But he’s the top contender for the leadership of a party that is supposed to offer the country plausible prime ministers. We need to know which of these ideas, if any, he’s serious about.

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