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This article was published 19/1/2017 (976 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s official: reality-television star and businessman Kevin O’Leary announced on Facebook his candidacy for the federal Conservative leadership race. The announcement came Wednesday morning, the day after the French-language leadership debate. Mr. O’Leary now joins a crowded field of 13.
On that list are Conservative MPs Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.) and Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.) — both considered front-runners. So far, Bernier’s managed to raise a sizable amount of money, suggesting he has a broad base and national support within the party.
Leitch has been extraordinarily controversial and has garnered some media interest. She’s supportive of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and has trumpeted "Canadian values" as a test to determine eligibility for entry into Canada as an immigrant or refugee (and perhaps even as a visitor).
For those observing Leitch’s campaign thus far and now with O’Leary in the fray, there are comparisons being made to the Trump election and whether Canada could see a repeat happen here.
Yes, O’Leary is an entertainer, having been on the show Dragons’ Den and at one point regularly appearing on CTV on the now-defunct Canada AM. In announcing his candidacy, O’Leary followed Trump’s lead of sidestepping the mainstream media by using Facebook, and it’s clear that, like Trump, he maintains a strong Twitter profile. But so do other Canadian politicians.
He’s also taken to making Trump-like bombastic claims. He’s already claimed that what he said as a television personality cannot be used against him as a politician, distancing himself from controversy.
While Leitch may be Trump-one, fighting the good fight on identity politics, and O’Leary is Trump-two, staking out a claim on the economic front to make Canada great again, that’s about as far as the comparisons can go, largely because Canada isn’t the United States on so many levels.
The way in which the Conservative leader will be elected differs from how the Republicans determined their nominee in the presidential election. The Republican nomination process involves delegates who vote for the party leader, and it’s a fairly complicated affair that includes some proportionality in some states, as well as consideration of statewide and congressional voting results, which means a candidate could lose statewide but still get delegates with a congressional-district win.
In Canada, the nomination process for the Conservatives is a one-person, one-vote affair with a ranked ballot, which means if you’re a member of the party, you can vote for whomever you wish as a member of your riding association.
The size of the electorate in a party leadership vote in Canada is extremely small. Membership for political parties is below two per cent of the overall population. In the United States, almost one-quarter of Americans identify as Republican party members and can then potentially vote for the nominee.
There are steps in place in the Conservative party to prevent parts of the country with minor riding associations from swamping parts of the country with larger ones. So, regardless of whether the riding has 1,000 members or 100, it is worth the same number of "points" in a leadership contest. If one candidate receives 10 per cent of the vote, then he or she receives 10 per cent of the points. In order to win, you have to receive 16,901 points, and you have to be viable in both Ontario and Quebec, as well as the rest of the country.
As well, the leadership votes for Trump took place over an extended period, beginning in late January and progressing until mid-June. A presidential election follows quickly thereafter. In Canada, the race is over a year long, and O’Leary is late to the party, with most candidates having announced since spring. But the overall voting is over in just one day. So, the attention paid to the race by both voters and the media is markedly less. For example, there have already been three leadership debates, one held Wednesday in French in Quebec City and one held in November in Saskatoon in English, with a bilingual debate in Moncton in December. All three were very low-key affairs, attended by party faithful in the areas but having limited public appeal. None was broadcast on national television, except on CPAC.
This is another area where the Canadian process is very different from the American one and can help explain Trump’s ascendancy. Trump spent more than US$71 million to win the nomination. In the month of June 2016, he spent close to US$8 million, mostly in ads. Much of that money came from Trump himself. By contrast, Democratic party nominee Hillary Clinton spent US$230 million, most of which was from party donations.
No one in Canada is allowed to spend that much money to win a party leadership. The spending limit is $5 million, but no one will come near that amount. So far, Bernier is in the lead for raising money for his leadership hopes, with more than $1 million raised since last spring.
While O’Leary has said he doesn’t need to raise money because he is a millionaire, he can’t spend his own money, either. Party campaign financing rules say he can self-finance only up to $25,000. He will need $100,000 for his registration fee and a compliance deposit. Unlike Trump, O’Leary can’t jump-start his campaign by writing a cheque and then rely on wealthy friends to donate. Private donations are limited, and corporate donations are forbidden.
It’s estimated Trump managed to get about US$2 billion in free advertising. His campaign was followed closely and either endorsed or, to a lesser extent, ridiculed on national television and radio during both the primaries and the campaign.
However, the media environments in Canada and the United States are not the same. There aren’t nationally syndicated talk-radio hosts here such as Rush Limbaugh, who endorsed Trump and has an audience of over a million listeners. There aren’t national news networks that feature endless political panels with pundits discussing the daily events in the leadership campaign, largely because there aren’t daily media events in the Canadian leadership campaign.
There is no Fox News or Breitbart.com to endorse a Canadian candidate, either. There is Rebel Media, a self-described "fearless source of news, opinion and activism," that made news in December for hosting a rally in front of Alberta’s legislature building that saw the crowd chanting "Lock her up" about Premier Rachel Notley. However, Rebel Media’s influence is limited by the fact it hardly holds a large national audience.
So far, the leadership race, even with Leitch in the running, has been remarkably low-key, with limited media attention.
Indeed, in a media analysis of the attention paid to leadership votes for political parties from 1975 to 2013 conducted with my research team (including Linda Trimble at the University of Alberta, along with Angelia Wagner at McGill and Bailey Gerrits and Daisy Raphael, both PhD candidates), we determined that over time, the number of stories on leadership contests in Canada has diminished.
In short, concerns about the election of a Trump-like Conservative leader in Canada are premature. Canada will remain its staid, boring political self, thankfully.
Shannon Sampert is the Free Press perspectives and politics editor.
Updated on Thursday, January 19, 2017 at 2:40 PM CST: Rebel Media is a self-described “fearless source of news, opinion and activism.” An earlier version of this column did not include a broader description of the conservative online platform.