Hébert: Quebec was not the only wall in his way

Businessman Kevin O’Leary said he is pulling out of the campaign to succeed Stephen Harper because he is not convinced he could carry enough votes in Quebec to beat Justin Trudeau in the 2019 election.

Fair enough. But chances are he would never have had the opportunity to test that proposition in a general election. Or to verify his attending presumption that voters elsewhere in Canada would rally to his flag.

Lack of traction in Quebec stood to stop his nascent political career in its tracks as early as next month’s Conservative vote.

Polls done for his own organization as the membership drive was coming to an end last month showed that a Quebec wall stood between O’Leary and the finish line. That wall looked insurmountable.

The reality-television star may have been the first choice of a plurality of Conservatives, but he had little room to grow beyond that group. In Quebec – the province that counts for the second-highest number of leadership votes – he could not earn the support of more than about one in 10 members.

That this should have come as a surprise to some of the seasoned backroom advisers who backed O’Leary’s candidacy is testimony to their powers of collective delusion.

There has not been a successful federal leader who could not speak French fluently since Pierre Trudeau won the Liberal leadership in 1968.

But even if he had been fluently bilingual, O’Leary would still have been a leadership disaster waiting to happen. Up to a point, his shortcomings in French may have been the least of his liabilities – and a saving grace for the Conservative party.

For never has a leading candidate for the leadership of one of Canada’s major parties brought so little policy depth to the task of applying for the job of would-be prime minister.

From the moment he entered the campaign, O’Leary consistently exhibited little understanding of the workings of government, the Constitution or for that matter the history of the party he was seeking to lead.

Joe Clark once described his vision of the Canadian federation as a community of communities. It is one of the rare parts of the former Tory prime minister’s legacy that has survived his estrangement from the Conservative movement.

By contrast, O’Leary’s concept of federalism was one that involved a punitive federal government imposing its will on its provincial partners through fiscal blackmail. He seemed to think the division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces was determined by the whims of the prime minister of the day.

Had Quebecers given O’Leary the time of day long enough to fathom his vision of the federation, his support would have fallen to single digits. I can’t think of a Conservative premier from Alberta – past or future – who would put up with that approach.

O’Leary was never elected to office and he never seemed to think much of those who had done so, including his future Conservative seatmates.

He let it be known early on that he was unimpressed by the calibre of the people who sit in the Conservative caucus. The feeling was by all accounts mutual. The anybody-but-O’Leary movement was nowhere stronger than within the ranks of the MPs who would have had to serve under his leadership if he had won.

O’Leary’s abrupt exit may have saddened more Liberals than actual Conservatives. Many of the latter are relieved that their party has dodged a bullet. In more than a few cases though, that relief is tempered by the notion that, in leaving, O’Leary may have cleared a path to victory for Maxime Bernier. His libertarian prescriptions may be as polarizing as O’Leary’s persona.

The defunct O’Leary campaign recruited about 35,000 members. He is asking them to throw their support to Bernier. If they did, the result of the May 27 leadership vote would be a foregone conclusion.

But O’Leary’s roots in the party are not deep and nor are those of many of his recently recruited supporters. Absent an organization to prod them into mailing their ballots, some may not bother to vote. A lot of others will follow their own guidance. One or more of his remaining rivals could still give Bernier a run for his money.

Still, there is no denying that as of now, Harper’s succession could be Bernier’s to lose. As opposed to O’Leary, he does have a Quebec ace of sorts up his sleeve.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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