Q&A: Arlene Dickinson, the former Dragons’ Den star who thinks voting for Kevin O’Leary would be a mistake

Q&A: Arlene Dickinson, the former Dragons’ Den star who thinks voting for Kevin O’Leary would be a mistake

This week, Kevin O’Leary officially announced his candidacy in the Conservative leadership race. The former “mean Dragon” on CBC’s Dragons’ Den (and current “mean Shark” on Shark Tank) says he’s exactly what this country needs, but Arlene Dickinson, his co-star on Dragons’ Den for seven years, thinks otherwise. In the days since O’Leary made his declaration, she has been speaking out publicly in an effort to dissuade voters from supporting his bid. Here, she tells us why.

You worked with him for several years. Would you ever have predicted a play for prime minister?
No. I wouldn’t have seen Kevin as someone who was putting anyone’s interests but his own first. The prime minister of our country and the leaders of our major parties need a completely selfless approach.

Clearly you’re not a fan. Can you elaborate on what you find most objectionable about a potential PM O’Leary?
Kevin is ultimately about Kevin. I sat next to him for seven years, and I would say his lack of empathy for hardworking entrepreneurs is indicative of how he would treat everyday Canadians. I saw that lack of empathy show itself over and over again for years.

But doesn’t every American Idol need a Simon Cowell to tell wide-eyed hopefuls that they suck? Otherwise it’s not a good show.
Kevin is driven by money, both on and off the show. His outlook on life is shaped by profit and loss. The difference between American Idol and Dragons’ Den is that on Dragons’ Den you’re representing yourself as a venture capitalist. Your values and what you believe in should inform your business decisions.

What do you say to Canadians who might like the idea of a no-nonsense, bottom-line leader?
Well, first let me say that I think it’s important for businesspeople to get involved in government. They bring important principles with them. But that doesn’t make Kevin the right representative of that type of mentality.

Even with so much having been written about him, it’s sort of hard to get a read on O’Leary as a businessman. What’s your assessment?
Well, that’s exactly it. If you go back, it’s a constant reinvention, depending on what’s going to be in his best interest. I keep coming back to this idea of self-interest—he’ll say what he needs to say when it’s the right time to say it. A great example of that is yesterday, when he was asked if he was going to continue on Shark Tank. He said, “I don’t need to make that decision right now.” That’s not somebody who’s committed to Canadians. That’s not somebody who’s prepared to say, “Absolutely I would leave that show.” He’s hedging his bets. That’s not a characteristic that I want to see in the leader of the Conservative party.

Out of the gate, he seems to be running with the jobs, jobs, jobs theme. It worked in the States.
Well, it’s easy to say, but I haven’t heard any policy around how he’s going to accomplish that. After seven years on the show with him I haven’t seen evidence of him truly understanding entrepreneurs at all, in terms of compassion and empathy.

Can you explain where heart and compassion fit into the entrepreneurial equation?
In terms of the “greed is good” mentality, I truly believe it’s an unrealistic portrayal of how business is done in Canada. That’s why Kevin is a bad representative—because he’s about capitalism at any cost. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 30 years, and if I’ve learned nothing else it’s that, at its core, business is about people. In order to have relationships you need to have empathy. Kevin doesn’t have that. He’s all about immediate returns.

Until now, people have been referring to Kellie Leitch as “Canada’s Trump.” Which candidate do you think is more worthy of the title and why?
I think they both deserve a piece of it. I can’t speak to Kellie’s platform, so I won’t, but I’ve heard what she has said about immigration policies, and that’s just so un-Canadian. Kevin is on the other side of that issue. He is the son of immigrants himself. But in all of the other aspects, there are a lot of similarities between him and Trump.

What can you tell us about O’Leary’s social leanings? He’s a fiscal conservative, but is he maybe more liberal socially?
I think he’s maybe in general more of a liberal than he is conservative. But going back through ten years of tapes, he has said ridiculous things that nobody would say are politically correct—so there’s another parallel to Trump.

Do you have a sense of where he stands on social issues like women’s rights, or LGBT rights?
Kevin says he’s a feminist. If that means having female entrepreneurs who have made him a lot of money, which is how he frames it, that’s easy to say—but that’s not feminism. I don’t know. I haven’t heard his policy around childcare, equal pay, or equal rights, so I don’t have an opinion yet.

In the time that you worked together, did you ever feel disrespected by him because of your gender?
Oh, for sure. He would tell me I’d ridden in on my broom, or that I was too emotional. He said things that he would never have said to the guys, although he was equally offensive to them in different ways.

Do you worry about getting on the potential future PM’s bad side?
Oh, no. Let’s hope that never happens, but I don’t live my life that way. And I’m certainly not trying to attack Kevin personally. I’m talking about the things we need to think about as we consider who the next leader of the Conservative party should be.

Have you heard from Kevin?
No. I don’t think he’ll be calling me up for a drink.

Is there a Conservative candidate who does strike your fancy?
There are a few contenders out there that I am watching closely.

If you won’t name names, will you explain what you’re looking for?
I want somebody who is not going to get in the way of the private sector and who understands business. And then I want somebody who cares about health care and education. These are things that should be very important to whoever is leading our country. And bilingualism is important.

There was that famous town hall debate during the election where Clinton and Trump were asked to say something positive about each other. I’m going to ask you to do the same about Kevin O’Leary.
Well, he is funny. He can make you laugh. And, listen: the decision to enter public service is not one to be taken lightly, so good for him for standing up and doing that. And I applaud him for putting his hat in the ring.

You just kind of wish it was a different hat?
Right. Exactly.