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O'Leary's decision to attend final debate part of a broader political education

Last Updated Mar 31, 2017 at 9:20 am EST

Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary waits to speak to students at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ont., on Thursday, March 16, 2017. Kevin O'Leary will attend the Conservative party's final formal leadership debate in Toronto on April 26. But the celebrity businessman-turned-leadership-front-runner told The Canadian Press on Thursday that he's still not convinced there's any point to being there. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

OTTAWA – Kevin O’Leary jumped into the Conservative leadership race late last year as the outsider candidate, brandishing a spatula to scrape “all that crap” out of Ottawa in a page that seemed torn from the playbook of U.S. President Donald Trump.

But as O’Leary appears to be learning, things change once you get inside.

After trying unsuccessfully to force the party to drop its free-for-all debate format — sitting out the last one earned him a $10,000 fine and a “chicken” label — O’Leary has decided to attend the next and final debate April 26 in Toronto.

“I will be at the last debate,” he said Thursday in a roundtable interview with The Canadian Press.

“If there’s still 14 people there, it will be another useless debate, because all you’ll get is 10-second sound bites.”

Whether the format will change is still unclear. Also unclear is whether the party will ever learn which campaigns tried to use prepaid credit cards to sign up new members, a violation of the rules that O’Leary’s team exposed with gusto.

Consequently, some 1,300 names have been wiped from the membership rolls — the sort of progress that happens when you bring a ruthless, bottom-line business approach to politics, says the investor, entrepreneur and reality-TV star.

“I come out of a world of compliance and integrity,” O’Leary said. “If you ever did anything that’s being played in federal and provincial politics with this membership stuff, you would be out of business.”

But change works both ways: two months in, O’Leary’s own thinking appears to have evolved.

While his key promise of getting the Canadian economy growing at three per cent of GDP a year has remain unchanged, other policy views, such as on how best to deal with border security, seem to be changing.

“You give your stump speech and then you answer questions and so you start to see the constituency from all elements of geography — you start in Vancouver, you end up in Saint John,” he said.

“And if everybody is asking you the same question about the porous border, you have to answer it.”

Before asylum seekers began making headlines for crossing the Canada-U.S. border in the freezing cold, O’Leary’s only comments on immigration comprised a smackdown of rival Kellie Leitch’s plan to screen newcomers for Canadian values.

“All of this discussion about somehow changing our policies in terms of bringing immigrants into this country, that’s never going to happen under my mandate,” O’Leary said in February.

But now he’s adopted a much harsher tone, urging the use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to overrule a Supreme Court decision that says anyone has a right to ask for asylum in Canada.

O’Leary insisted he doesn’t want to take away that right, merely limit it to those who cross at legal border points. Others, he argues, are queue-jumpers draining the resources of Canada’s immigration system, a position popularized by the previous Conservative government.

That pivot is meant to address concerns O’Leary said he’s hearing from Canadians, be they tech firms in Prince Edward Island looking for specific solutions to hiring issues, or farmers having trouble getting their products to market.

Take the CBC: the network where O’Leary starred as a business talk show host and “Dragons Den” panellist suddenly showed up in his crosshairs this week as he pledged to dramatically cut its funding.

Why now? Because he kept getting asked, O’Leary said.

“I thought, ‘That’s not the top of my agenda; that’s not going to help me get to 3 per cent GDP growth,'” he said.

“But by the time I got to Atlantic Canada it was every day the same question. And I thought, ‘OK, I get it — you want an answer on the CBC, here it is, that’s what I’m going to do.'”

While he’s setting his sights on the CBC and immigration, he’s softening his tone on another bedrock constituency: social conservatives, who slammed him after an event in Montreal in February where he said issues like abortion, LGBT rights, reproductive rights and the legalization of marijuana were “done” and people should get over it.

“If it’s understood that the party will not mandate morality, or in any way dictate (morality), and that every family can follow their own moral compass, I think there’s a fair amount of comfort,” he said.

Another about-face: his willingness to learn to speak French.

Initially, he pooh-poohed the idea, arguing voters spoke the language of the economy and that was all that matters, but after a stern talking-to by the party’s Quebec MPs, he’s working daily with a French teacher with the goal of being proficient enough to debate Justin Trudeau in 2019 his goal.

Of course that would require winning the party’s leadership vote in May.

“I’m past that,” he said, with an ample helping of his trademark bravado.

“I’ve made the assumption I’m wining the leadership.”