Warning to Canada: Do not dismiss reality TV star Kevin O’Leary’s political run as a joke

Not a nothing-burger.
Not a nothing-burger.
Image: Reuters/Gus Ruelas
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If there’s one lesson from the 2016 US presidential election, it’s that dismissing the candidacy of Donald Trump as an entertaining sideshow was a big mistake.

Perhaps Canadians will learn from it.

Kevin O’Leary, the venture capitalist and outspoken investor known as “Mr. Wonderful” on ABC TV’s Shark Tank— and famous in Canada as a former dragon on Dragon’s Den, the Canadian version of Shark Tankofficially jumped into the race today (Jan. 18) to lead the Conservative Party of Canada.

O’Leary offers plenty of material for satire. He’s the star shark who keeps the show lively with his spicy insults to guests and fellow investors. He likes to call people “nothing-burgers.” He has a catchphrase for entrepreneurs who reject his deal offers: “You’re dead to me.” He has never been a politician.

Sound familiar?

O’Leary hopes to become the Conservative party leader ahead of the 2019 federal election, meaning he’d become prime minister if his party won enough seats in Ottawa that year. “Canada cannot afford another 4 years of Justin Trudeau,” O’Leary wrote on his official campaign website.  

Commentators at media outlets including Vice Canada and the Canadian Press agree that O’Leary is no Trump. Vice points out that O’Leary has actually attacked a competitor’s anti-immigration stance, and that, while financially comfortable by any standard, he’s only “Canada rich.” 

O’Leary himself has said that he doesn’t agree with Trump’s foreign and social policies, and doesn’t believe a Trump-style campaign would win in Canada, where his main concern will be boosting economic growth. Nevertheless, he’s also promising jobs, talking about the benefits of having a businessman running the economy, and positioning himself as a shrewd dealmaker—one who could stand up to Trump in trade talks. And like Trump, he knows how to get the cameras’ attention.

O’Leary apparently doesn’t see gross inequality in the world as a big concern, and he hates unions. And now he has Trudeau—one of two liberal world leaders the West will be looking to in the Trump era, according to outgoing US vice president Joe Biden—in his crosshairs.

Despite the headwinds the novice candidate is facing, the lesson from America is painfully clear: Don’t take anything for granted.