HALIFAX — The crowd of more experienced contenders for the federal Conservative leadership set its sights on Kevin O'Leary right out of the gate Saturday as the reality-TV star and aspiring politician made his debate debut in Halifax.
O'Leary's unconventional, no-nonsense style and celebrity status as star of the U.S.-based program "Shark Tank'' has made him the presumptive front-runner — and the primary target for most of the other candidates on the stage, who derided him as inexperienced, opportunistic and politically tone-deaf.
Kevin O'Leary makes his debut at the Conservative leadership candidates' debate, in Halifax on Feb. 4. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press).
"We have a celebrity-in-chief'' in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario MP Erin O'Toole said during his closing statement.
"We don't beat the celebrity-in-chief with another celebrity-in-chief.''
Ontario MP Michael Chong called him "Rambo'' as he slammed O'Leary for releasing a video clip of himself blasting away with automatic weapons at a Miami gun range Friday — the same day of the funeral for three of the six victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting.
“That video will cost us the next election.”
"(He) had the audacity to post that video on the very same day we were burying the victims of one of the worst mass shootings in Canadian history,'' Chong said.
"That video will cost us the next election.''
But O'Leary didn't steal the entire show.
Between the sustained attacks and wisecracks at O'Leary's expense that bookended the two-hour debate, the 14 candidates took part in what was largely a measured and civil exchange of ideas about issues like health care, justice reform, economic growth and Atlantic Canada's diminished profile in Ottawa.
O'Toole, a former navy pilot who was stationed in Nova Scotia, described how when he left Atlantic Canada, "I took a part of this place in my heart,'' and promised to fight hard for the region as prime minister.
O'Toole characterized the 32 Liberal MPs who currently represent the region as "lambs'' who do little and say less to represent their constituents: "The silence of the lambs.''
Former House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer described his frustration as he watched the Liberals vote against Energy East, a 4,600-kilometre pipeline project designed to ship crude oil from Alberta to refineries and port terminals in New Brunswick.
"It happens every time there's a Trudeau in office,'' he said, describing the disenfranchisement of regions like Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
"It's the same Ottawa-knows-best, centralizing, big-government approach that the Liberals are famous for.''
Vancouver MP Andrew Saxton elicited a lusty cheer when he put it this way: "This Trudeau government,'' he said, "is as economically inept as the last Trudeau government.''
Maxime Bernier makes a point as Andrew Scheer, left, looks on at the Conservative leadership candidates' debate in Halifax on Feb. 4. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
On that point, everyone on stage agreed — including O'Leary.
"Nowhere does it say you have to tolerate mediocrity'' in government, he said. "People are sick of politicians spinning them BS. That time is over, my friends. That's why I'm in this race. we are going to change it all, my friends.''
O'Toole and Scheer were among those who took early digs at O'Leary, accusing the Boston-based businessman of flip-flopping on the Liberal government's carbon pricing plan out of political expediency.
“I just want to put on the record right now that not only am I opposed to a carbon tax, I'm opposed to a carbon jail.”
— Andrew Scheer
Scheer make light of O'Leary's musings about jailing businesses that refuse to reduce emissions by 30 per cent over 20 years.
"I just want to put on the record right now that not only am I opposed to a carbon tax, I'm opposed to a carbon jail,'' the former House of Commons Speaker said to laughter from the audience.
In her opening salvo, Ontario MP Kellie Leitch, sitting at O'Leary's left elbow, made a point of "welcoming'' him to the Conservative party and took a dig at his lack of party bona fides.
"There have been some news stories recently about non-Conservatives joining the party to stop me from leader,'' a spirited Leitch joked.
"I just never expected to be sitting beside one of them.''
Kellie Leitch makes a statement at the Conservative leadership candidates' debate, in Halifax on Feb. 4. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
O'Leary, however, played it cool, refusing to rise to the bait of his rivals and instead focusing on issues that play to his background: fostering job creation and economic growth.
Businesses need "rich soil to plant the seed'' in order to grow and flourish, something he said doesn't happen much in Atlantic Canada these days.
"You can't even grow a weed here any more,'' said O'Leary, whose candidacy has been compared to the unlikely political success of U.S. President Donald Trump.
"It's a disaster.''
Capital is fluid, he added — "It goes to the place of least resistance and most opportunity.''
Hopefuls play up East Coast roots
O'Leary only formally joined the competition after the last leadership debate, his timing an effort to avoid making his debut during a French-only event — despite having been born in Quebec, he speaks little of that language.
His campaign claims to have signed up 9,000 members and raised $300,000 in the first 10 days he was in the race. It took Leitch, whose focus on immigration reform has also elicited comparisons to Trump, three months to raise that much.
Rebuilding the party's support there is seen as crucial for the party. Two leadership candidates — O'Toole and Lisa Raitt — have both played up their East Coast roots in launching their respective leadership bids.
“We have to earn back the trust of the voters.”
— Lisa Raitt
Raitt, born in Sydney, N.S., has also been one of the most outspoken critics of O'Leary's decision to join the race. The province has traditionally sent Boston a Christmas tree every year, she noted at one point Saturday.
"I just never expected that Boston in return would send us a candidate for the leadership.''
Raitt promised to put the region back on the national political map.
"We have to earn back the trust of the voters,'' she said. "We deserve a voice; we have earned that voice, and I will listen to that voice.''