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Russell Wangersky: A Conservative wolf in sealskin clothes

Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary addresses the crowd at an event in Pooles Corner during a visit to P.E.I. on March 22, 2017.
Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary addresses the crowd at an event in Pooles Corner during a visit to P.E.I. on March 22, 2017.

In St. John’s on Thursday morning, Tory leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary slipped into an apparently borrowed sealskin coat to make one more connection when speaking with the locals.

Russell Wangersky

But borrowed or bought, the move, in all its simple prop-populism, reminded me of a wealthy Newfoundland cabinet minister who used to drive a Jaguar to work at the legislature, but who put that car away and rented a cheap sedan whenever he was on the campaign trail.
The message? “I’m one of you” — when, really, you’re not.
O’Leary’s stumping in the Atlantic provinces this week, taking his message of gross domestic product growth and his mixed bag of conservative and not-so-conservative ideas to potential Tory party members as he seeks the leadership of the federal Conservative Party.

In Pooles Corner, P.E.I., on Wednesday, he’d had much the same message that he brought to St. John’s: only the economy and jobs matter.

O’Leary talked about the need to keep up with the American Joneses: “We should have waited to see if we could have been competitive. If (U.S. President Donald Trump) lowers corporate tax, we match it. If he lowers personal tax, we match it.’’

O’Leary sees Trump’s promises of things like lowering personal and corporate taxes, reducing regulation and removing the environmental restrictions on industry as good things.

“He was pro growth, pro capital, pro jobs in every state of the country. He is going to be competitive.”

We should, apparently, take those kinds of changes to heart and match the lowest common denominator.

Fight for the bottom may work well as a campaign selling point, but it’s not without perils: trickle-down economics, along with the idea that increases in gross domestic product lift all boats, doesn’t really happen to the extent that those who reap the bulk of the flow like to pretend.

Just look at a different kind of boats: thousands of merchant ships, cruise ships, freighters and tankers operate under “flags of convenience” from countries like Panama or Liberia.

Why? Because those countries have little or no interest in oversight or regulation of vessels, their owners or their crews. Register a vessel in this country and you have to meet Canadian guidelines, including Canadian crewing requirements and pay scales.

A dearth of shipping regulations — and the ability to pay crews a fraction of what they would get if the vessels were registered in countries with stricter rules — means that a small country like Panama can end up with the largest registration of vessels in the world.

But does that mean that, in order to “compete,” we should lower all of our marine safety standards and wages to match Panama’s? We might increase O’Leary’s all-encompassing GDP, not to mention bigger profits for those owning vessels registered in this country, but the only trickle-down would be bad wages and dangerous crewing conditions.

Should we lower safety regulations for coal miners in Cape Breton to compete financially with accident-prone and deadly Chinese coal mines?
Getting rid of regulations to stay competitive has clear downsides; giving companies fewer environmental rules means they will be able to pollute. Lower taxes means either money coming from somewhere else, or less medical care, fewer road repairs, and second-class education for our kids.

Being competitive does mean more jobs and more money — but most of that money isn’t going to benefit you or your family. It does mean less protection. It’s just a comfortable suit of clothes for another businessman who wants you to believe his sales pitch.

That sealskin coat? If O’Leary didn’t slip it back off again before heading home to Boston, U.S. customs agents would seize it.
But I doubt he was wearing it anywhere else but here anyway.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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