This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 2, 2017.
The businessman and TV star’s outlandish statements are not policy pronouncements; rather they are an attempt to chart a new style of national politics, one based on feelings and confidence rather than thoughtful technocracy.
It is no secret that the economies of the United States and Canada are intertwined and often underperformance by our southern neighbour is a harbinger of a downturn here. The truth is that our political realities very much reflect each others, as well.
Few today remember the disastrous inflation both countries experienced in the 1970s, exacerbated by oil price shocks. After tinkering at the margins for a while, central banks ﾗ led by Paul Volcker in the United States and John Crow in Canada ﾗ courageously raised interest rates to bring inflation down.
It was a political gamble; the medicine was harsh. The disinflation resulted in a recession that left huge deficits and high unemployment in both countries, and people protested. Fortunately, the medicine worked; inflation stabilized, and North America ushered in a period of relatively uninterrupted and stable growth.
Economists call this the period the Great Moderation. It was hailed as proof that the conventional wisdoms of capitalist economics worked for everyone. Governments rushed to be seen heeding the advice of sage economists. All over the world, governments expanded trade deals and lowered taxes, as instructed by the all-knowing plutocrats.
The problem was, the consensus did not account for the political realities of the changing economies. While the overall balance sheet showed growing incomes, many working-class North Americans – especially Americans – lost their jobs to outsourcing, leaving communities across rural America struggling to survive.
But amid a political consensus for spreadsheet-based performance indicators, there was little will to directly engage with the underlying malcontent.
The financial crisis of 2008 brought the period of sustained growth to an abrupt end. With the benefit of hindsight, the crisis was the last chance for the old ways and tested methods of the technocratic compact to prove itself.
For many, they failed.
The pace of change experienced by the working class in America had finally come to a head.
The financial crisis marked the end of the technocratic compact and the beginning of what was then the tea party movements, which has metamorphized into a populist phenomenon.
The failure of the technocratic compact to restore middle America’s faith in the promised land during the crisis of 2008 was when the proverbial curtain was finally pulled back on the Wizard of Oz.
After supporting Barack Obama in two presidential elections, America’s working class in the Rust Belt states of the northern U.S. rallied to Donald Trump, the great disrupter.
Trump got to the White House by convincing white working class voters that he understood that their lives were harder than people in Washington realized.
He spoke to them in plain words, sharing their frustration and staking his reputation as a business leader as a marker of success: a leader who created hotels and golf resorts, not just paper and charts. Trump’s wealth and largesse spoke more to Americans about success than did a pile of degrees from elite institutions.
We are starting to see signs of that wave stirring in the leadership race for Canada’s Conservative Party.
Conventional wisdom has it that leadership candidates win with a combination of ideas and hustle. It is no surprise that Conservative leadership candidates who hog the headlines are those who have substantive ideas to point to ﾗ Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch, Michael Chong, Erin O’Toole ﾗ while those who started out close to the front yet chose to campaign largely on their records as MPs ﾗ Lisa Raitt or Andrew Scheer ﾗ are struggling to gain media attention.
This is in keeping with Canadian political history. We have long been a technocratically focused nation. Our prime ministers have been thoughtful and adhered to strict belief systems that have informed the way they governed. Thoughtful governmental policies are established through commissions, painstaking inquiries, and legislation. Public pronouncements are cautious, careful and steady.
And then Kevin O’Leary came along. He has disrupted this steadiness. Policy pronouncements made by O’Leary have been basic at best, and misleading at worst. However, he is currently in the top tier of contenders of the Conservative Party leadership race, and perhaps even a favourite to win.
O’Leary has branded himself as a straight-talking, successful businessman whom English Canadians came to know on CBC’s Dragon’s Den.
He has used his brand to channel dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Last week, O’Leary proclaimed that the CBC should have to ﾓsing for its supper,ﾔ and he has repeated the refrain to make Trudeau’s time as prime minister a ﾓliving hell.ﾔ Obviously, these are not policy pronouncements.
Rather they are an attempt to chart a new style of national politics, one based on feelings and confidence rather than thoughtful technocracy.
Though it must be understood that a Canadian leadership election is very different from an American-style primary system, O’Leary looks well-positioned to upset the steady consensus that has governed Canada for much of its recent history.
Into the Dragon’s Den we go.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.