OTTAWA - Celebrity businessman Kevin O'Leary has ripped another page out of U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign play book, backing out of a planned Conservative party leadership debate over frustrations with the format.
His move to boycott Tuesday's debate in Edmonton prompted immediate cries of foul from his competitors, some of whom accused him of making up the notion that all but one of the 14 leadership contenders agreed that the format needed to be changed.
O'Leary contended that having all 14 candidates appear on stage together to answer the same questions — as is planned for the Edmonton event — is unproductive.
"It allows no time for ideas to be explained, or any real debate to transpire," he said in a statement Monday.
He claimed his team had worked to build consensus for a switch to the format used at a conservative movement conference in Ottawa last Friday and that all candidates but one agreed.
In Friday's debate, organized by the arms-length Manning Centre, the candidates were divided into small groups, each of which tackled a specific policy issue.
In refusing to adopt the same format, the party let down its membership, O'Leary said.
"I believe it should be responsive and focused on what will provide members with the best opportunity to hear from candidates in a meaningful way," he said.
Erin O'Toole said O'Leary's the one who's letting down grassroots Conservatives.
"It shows a continued lack of respect for our members," he said.
O'Leary is often likened to Trump for their shared business-to-reality-TV-to-politics path, and their brash, fast-talking pitches directly to voters on social media channels, even though on social policy they remain worlds apart.
O'Leary has been complaining about the debate format since before he joined the race, and delayed joining at all until after the only French language debate.
Trump had a testy relationship with both the primary and presidential debates during his run. During the primaries, he bailed on a Fox News debate saying the network was toying with him, and without him, no one would watch. He accused the Commission on Presidential Debates of being rigged against him after microphone problems.
Lisa Raitt called O'Leary a "chicken" for staying away from Tuesday's event.
"Format is irrelevant. Presence is mandatory. Suck it up and play by the rules," she wrote on Twitter.
O'Leary faces a $10,000 fine for failing to appear at a mandatory party event. His campaign says the money will come out of the $25,000 he personally donated to the race — the maximum each candidate can contribute to themselves.
The party had been mulling changing the debate format for weeks but O'Leary's campaign did not propose the Manning conference style format until last weekend. Coming just four days before the Edmonton debate, the party required all 14 campaigns to agree.
Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier's campaigns both told The Canadian Press they weren't excited about a change in format and told the party so.
But Steven Blaney's campaign just flat out said no.
O'Leary was afraid of being confronted on issues like his support gun control and marijuana legalization, Blaney spokesman Pierre-Luc Jean said.
"After failing to show up to the only French debate, in Quebec City, Kevin O'Leary has found another excuse to avoid a bilingual debate," he said.
"As a TV celebrity, Kevin O'Leary is used to getting his way, and when he doesn't, he leaves."
Other candidates claimed they were never canvassed at all.
"I cannot speak for the other leadership teams but there was no contact from (O'Leary) or the party that would constitute canvassing over one particular format," said candidate Rick Peterson.
"You realize you're being played, right?"
O'Leary will hold his own event Tuesday evening in Edmonton to meet with party members, and hopes the party itself will reconsider the format for the next debate, scheduled for late April.