Leadership watch: O’Leary’s in, French debate debacle, Bernier becomes a frontrunner

The businessman made the snap announcement that he'll be running for leader on Wednesday, in order to skip a french-language debate happening on Tuesday.

by Justin Ling
Jan 18 2017, 12:56pm

The chairs had barely even cleared off the stage for the Conservative Party’s French-language leaders debate when Kevin O’Leary finally announced that he would be seeking the second-place party’s top job.

In an abrupt and short Facebook announcement on Wednesday, recorded backstage of a CTV morning show, O’Leary told followers he’d be jumping into the race.

He has not, as of yet, filed the paperwork, signatures, or money required to actually do so, however.

O’Leary’s media team sent out a copy of his remarks after he spoke on Wednesday morning, but didn’t tell the national press about the announcement, or even if there was going to be an announcement, prior to the Facebook live.

“Canada needs a 3% growth rate if we want to invest in everything that matters to Canadians,” reads O’Leary’s speech, which still had edits and red lines running through it, when it was sent to reporters.

Afterwards, O’Leary walked onto the set at CTV Your Morning, where he decried “incompetence, mediocrity, and in some cases, stupidity” and promised that: “In 2019, it won’t be an election, it will be an exorcism”

French-language debate

An exorcism may be drastic, but several leadership contenders in Tuesday evening’s debate definitely sounded like they were speaking in tongues.

The crowded 13-person field features two native francophones, Maxime Bernier and Steven Blaney; five anglophones who have developed passable French chops, Chris Alexander, Pierre Lemieux, Rick Peterson, and Michael Chong; and the rest who were left struggling, to varying degrees, in their second (in one case, third) tongue.

Kellie LeitchIllustration by Ethan Tennier-Stuart

That included former Member of Parliament Andrew Saxton, who tried to iterate throughout the night that he was a homme d’affaires (business man) but instead came across as though he was a homme de fer (Ironman).

Then there was Kellie Leitch, ostensible frontrunner, who spent the night trying to attack Bernier, but took it a step further near the end of the evening, when she accidentally referred to the former minister of tourism as the “minister of terrorism.”

Conservative Party elder statesman Deepak Obhrai, for his part, seemed to recognize his own inability to speak French, and eventually resorted to repeating his website over-and-over to the crowd, encouraging them to repeat it with him.

But even Obhrai had the courage to go make an effort to try and win over the Quebec membership — perhaps, partly, because Quebec represents roughly 25 percent of the total points up for grabs in the race — whereas O’Leary deliberately waited until after the debate to official jump into the race.

O’Leary, who was born in Quebec but who is a unilingual anglophone, told the CTV hosts that he’s working on his language skills.

The battle for Quebec

Because of the way the leadership race is structured, each province can be incredibly important.

Each riding in the country, irrespective of its actual Conservative Party membership, is worth 100 points. That means even if there are five party members in Rimouski-Neigette—
Témiscouata—Les Basques, they have the same weight in the race as a thousand members in Fort McMurray—Cold Lake.

Maxime Bernier

And last night’s debate showed that, unsurprisingly, Quebecers Bernier and Blaney could play spoilers in the final results—or win outright.

The crowd appeared split between the two men, trading cheers and muted boos (the crowd was told to stay silent during the debate itself) as both men shouted at each other from a few feet away.

Blaney attacked Bernier for wanting to end supply management—a cartel system of supply controls and quotas, designed to protect certain sectors of Canadian agriculture—while Bernier hit back with a more detailed explanation of how he would foster competition, boost trade, and lower taxes.

Bernier’s team seems confident that his approach is working.

In an internal poll given to La Presse earlier this week, his team has him running a close third behind Raitt and Leitch in English Canada and a strong first in Quebec, with Blaney in second. According to their numbers, Bernier would win the leadership race on the second ballot.

Those numbers ought to be taken with a whole shaker of salt, given that they were conducted and released by the campaign itself and not independently conducted or vetted.

But, combined with Bernier’s impressive fundraising haul, the self-styled libertarian is quickly becoming a man to beat in the race.

Steven Blaney
Kellie Leitch
Chris Alexander
Maxime Bernier
Michael Chong
Lisa Raitt
Kevin O'Leary
Andrew Scheer
Andrew Saxton
Conservative Party Leadership Race