Conservative leadership contender and businessman Kevin O’Leary said earlier this month that what he said in the past “don’t mean anything” now that he’s thrown his hat in the ring for the Conservative leadership bid. Because it is “not policy” and what matters now is how “are we going to fix this country”.
O’Leary has said many shocking and controversial things in the past, such as saying it’s fantastic that the 85 wealthiest people in the world have wealth equal to the poorest 3.5 billion — adding that it motivates them — and suggesting to sell Senate seats. He is now asking for us to forget all that, and focus on what he is going to say.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.
Politicians’ — and politician-hopefuls’ — words have weight. What they say or don’t say matters. As our elected or would-be-elected representatives, Canadians can and will hold them to account for what they say.
A recent example would be Justin Trudeau’s pipeline approvals late last year. After talking about Indigenous rights and promoting the environment, the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline was seen as contradictory to everything he said in the past. Although many do see the logic and common sense behind it, critics of the pipelines say he is breaking commitments that were made under the Paris Climate Agreement that he had signed.
Trudeau also came under fire recently when he answered in French to a question about mental health — asked in English — at a town-hall meeting in Sherbrooke, Que., earlier this month.
Clearly, words matter here. In the latter case, language certainly does.
This is not just limited to an MP’s tenure. For instance, part of the reason the NDP became the official opposition in the 2011 federal election was because the late Jack Layton was able to tell people ‘I will’ and be believed, while then-Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff was painted as a flip-flop by the Conservatives in attack ads.
The Conservatives won a majority government that election, and Ignatieff lost his own seat with the Liberal Party plummeting to a record low of 34 seats in the House.
However, come the 2015 election, the Conservatives flubbed by mentioning how great Trudeau’s hair was in an attack ad that was supposed to stress his inexperience, which in turn made voters start judging the various leader’s hair, of which Trudeau’s hair was definitely the best. This, combined with so-called ‘Harper fatigue’ and Trudeau’s appeal to young voters, ousted the Conservatives in favour of a Liberal majority government.
Words still do matter here.
It matters in the House of Commons too, with MPs bickering over the use of F-A-R-T and dress codes for men, now permanently documented in the federal Hansard record for all to see.
Provincial politics are not exempt from it either. Premier Rachel Notley faced significant backlash for suggesting people walk or take the bus to work in regard to the already despised, though not yet then implemented, carbon tax this past December, as many felt her comments sounded a bit too like the infamous ‘Let them eat cake’ line. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean faced controversy in August for making a joke about it being illegal to beat Notley during an August 2016 town-hall meeting. Conservative leadership hopeful Chris Alexander found himself in the deep end after seemingly encouraging a ‘Lock her up’ chant directed at Notley during an anti-carbon tax rally in December. Meanwhile MLA Sandra Jansen, a former PC-leadership candidate who crossed the floor to the NDP, moved everyone in the legislature when she read aloud threats she had received after dropping out of the race.
Words will always matter here.
Although what you said 10 years ago might not be relevant now — you might not even agree with it now — it still does matter, especially if you are a public figure and your words were even slightly controversial. It will be dragged up, and you will have to explain yourself.
Why did you believe in this? What were you thinking when you said this? How could you do that? But you are Liberal/Conservative/NDP/Green/etc., and that goes against your ideology?
As elected representatives of the Canadian people, politicians are held to a higher standard, and part of that is how you say something and what you say. There is a difference between calling someone an ignorant buffoon and saying someone does not want to see what your viewpoint is.
In O’Leary’s case, he has been in the public eye, both in the CBC’s business commentator show The Lang & O’Leary Exchange and the reality shows Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank. In them he has said a lot of things, and whether he was playing to the camera or not, he will have to answer for them.
Canadians will demand it.