Television host turned politician campaigning without a spotlight

With the countdown to this fall’s federal election ticking down, former broadcaster and journalist Seamus O’Regan finds himself in a kind of limbo, waiting for the writ to officially drop and for the mainstream media to put some effort into covering the contest in St. John’s – South Pearl, which sees him trying to unseat the incumbent, NDP Member of Parliament Ryan Cleary.

While O’Regan’s entry into the political ring, after a decade as a national broadcaster, was enthusiastically touted by the province’s small political press corps, the spotlight has largely fallen away since that announcement last August. It’s left O’Regan scrambling for attention as the election approaches, while Cleary, an old-fashioned style showman in the style of George Baker, makes every opportunity to grab a headline or soundbite from his podium in parliament. O’Regan has been left trying to snare attention on social media, while quietly and persistently pursuing a ground game of knocking on doors and introducing himself to the electorate one voter at a time.

O’Regan recently visited the office of The Pearl to talk about his campaign. The interview began with the would-be Parliamentarian being asked to explain how he got the Liberal nomination, which came after a long announced contender, realtor Jim Burton, suddenly withdrew from the campaign, followed by O’Regan’s sudden candidacy and a quickly called nomination vote, which saw nobody else enter the race. The quickness of the events caused some people to speculate that O’Regan’s friend, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, had a hand in creating the circumstances necessary for O’Regan to secure the nomination.

Jim Burton announced he was running (in January 2014), and it seemed like the party was holding off before they called the nomination. Then he left and within a very short window of time later you announced you were going to run. Then within another short window of time, they called the nomination. What happened there?

Jim has got a very busy business. He called me when I was at my sister’s and said he had decided what he wanted to do. His business is expanding, I think he has almost 60 employees by now. He said ‘This is an important time of my life, my business is doing very well, and I just can’t do it all.’ I had to make a decision, I thought it over and realized that sometimes life grants you opportunities and you’ve just got to take it. So I acted very quickly and said yes, I am going for the nomination.

Why would he call you? Had you two talked previously about you being interested?

Yes, it was definitely something I was looking at. I hadn’t made up my mind, but I was mulling it over and I spoke to others and just wasn’t sure. There were a lot of personal matters weighing on my mind. I had to make sure it was the right thing to do.

Had you talked about it with Trudeau?

Only in the vaguest of terms. He asked me to consider running. We’d known each other for a long time. The idea of two friends doing it together, if we both got elected, was something I thought would be very exciting. We think alike politically and I trust the guy. I wouldn’t get involved with this if I didn’t think the guy would make a superb prime minister.

Why do you want to be a politician? It’s a tough racket.

It is a tough racket and I know that. The interesting thing is, in the five years that I spent (in politics previously) – three years with Ed Roberts as his executive assistant and two years with Brian Tobin as his policy advisor - I know what I’m getting into. I watched how politics affected both of them, the toll that it will take on your personal life, on your family life. But I also have to say just from a selfish point of view, serving people, being in public service, is some of the most fulfilling work you will ever do, if that is the sort of work you are into. And I am. I’m a policy guy, I’m a political guy, I follow it. I’m hugely into ‘how do we make things better in a crazy changing world, how do we make government better, how do I serve the people better?’ All of that stuff really interests me. We’ve done some great stuff during the time I helped the Wells and Tobin government. I’m very proud of my time there. The idea of actually being involved with it myself is enticing. The idea of serving my hometown, my home city, to be here in St. John’s South – Mount Pearl all lined up and I went for it.

Is Roberts as smart as he seems and is Tobin as slimy as he seems?

Yes and absolutely no. Ed is an incredibly bright guy, he was quite good to me. I was very young to be an executive assistant, I worked hard for him and I followed him by example and he was a superb teacher. He taught me an incredible amount. And Brian has got an incredible drive and ambition in him. He doesn’t believe in the status quo, if the status quo doesn’t work. He believes in change, he believes in shaking things up. I think he has, as premier, left an extraordinary legacy for this province and I still keep in touch with the both of them.

Did you pay attention to Don Mills’ remarks (about the population and economic challenges facing the province)? What did you think of those?

I think we’ve got a significant challenge in front of us, there’s no question about it. We’ve got to look more seriously at the immigration into this province. We’ve got to not only attract talent but also retain it. This isn’t just something that would be nice, we need to. We have an aging population that will pose a significant challenge for us ahead. I would put it in the top two challenges that the province will face in the upcoming years.

What’s the other one?

Managing resource development and managing it properly. That is not easy, that is a big file. But it is essential. And diversifying the economy, so we aren’t just relying on non-renewable resources.

What are the challenges with managing the resources?

Being vigilant about making sure the province gets its fair share and being vigilant in that we maximize job potential here and maximize revenue. And that the jobs we create here are high end, sophisticated jobs that we transfer significant technology from other jurisdictions, so that we can build companies here that can go into the rest of the world, much like Norway has done, and be companies that can export their talent and expertise around the world; that is how we’ll grow.

What about the dynamic tension that seems to be growing between the anti-frackers and the people who want more land set aside for reserves and the people who will actually extract and invest in the extraction of natural resources who want more access to the land? Where do you come down on that?

On fracking, I would say there are a lot of jurisdictions around North America that have gone with this, I think we should be diligent and make sure we are doing the right thing. But it is an incredible technology that the Americans have been working on for a long time. I think for a lot of us, it appears as if fracking just occurred. It didn’t. It’s being going on for a long time. Having said that, when it comes to the environment, we have to do our diligence, we absolutely do, we can learn a lot from studies done in other jurisdictions. The topsoil and geology of Newfoundland and Labrador is very unique and we have to make sure we are doing it right.

Are you worried that Cleary has a lead on you?

Ryan Cleary won with 48 per cent of the vote. It is significant. He’s a hard worker and a fighter, I get that. I’m a hard worker and I am a fighter. We have different ways of going about it and at the end of the day, the people of St. John’s and Mount Pearl will decide. It’s amazing, but you could drive yourself crazy thinking about how it could work out. At the end of the day, I just have great faith in the people and they will make the decision that they believe will be best for the riding. But I firmly believe that I would make a solid MP for the people of St. John’s South and Mount Pearl, if I didn’t think that, then I wouldn’t be involved.

How significant is the incumbency advantage here? He’s got access to speaking in the House of Commons, he gets to get interviewed by the media more often than you.

It’s the same for everybody, I guess it’s somewhat of an advantage for any sitting Member of Parliament over people who choose to take the challenge. It’s not that it can’t be overcome or else we’d never see changes in government. But the only that I know and that I’ve learned is that social media is a component but it doesn’t beat going door to door. It’s been a revelation to me. I’ve always been involved with policy, but I had not gone around and walked door to door. I’d done a lot of constituency work with Ed Roberts up in Goose Bay. I did some constituency work for Bill Rompkey when he was a Member of Parliament as well. So I have got an idea what to do there, but the actual going door to door has been an incredible experience for me. People have been unfailingly polite. They may say ‘Good luck now,’ but it doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for you. I ask them what’s on their mind, what they’re thinking. Sometimes they have time for you, sometimes they don’t want to let the heat out and fair enough. The campaign hasn’t started yet, it’s important that people know that I’m around and people can get in touch with me. I’m just going around introducing myself, letting them know that I am working for their vote.

Are you worried at all that you haven’t defined yourself as much as Cleary has, because the spotlight has been on him? He has that and that is an advantage. Even though you are a celebrity, most people don’t really know who you are.

When you spend three hours a day on a daily morning television show for 10 years - I’ll acknowledge that we baked some muffins and reviewed some movies - but the bulk of it dealt with hard news. And that is something that I’ve always been very passionate about. So people have seen me as a journalist, in the same way that they’ve seen others go into politics as a journalist. I’ve been in people’s kitchens and bedrooms for almost 10 years. They know me but they also know me as someone who has been on top of the issues that affected them, issues of federal and provincial importance. There are assets and liabilities to being known in this way. I think there is a familiarity that isn’t a bad thing, but not everyone may have been impressed with my job on Canada AM. I suffer that exposure as well. The profile it turned up a notch, but ultimately they make the decision.

What are you doing now for a day job?

I still do some consulting work for Ryerson University, I still speak from time to time. Right now, I am 100 per cent committed to winning the riding and that is taking up a lot of my time.

Who’s smarter, Trudeau or Tom Mulclair?

In my mind, it’s Justin. I don’t know Tom as well. I know Justin well, he is savvy; If people want to underestimate him, and they do so at their peril.

You said earlier you’re a policy guy. What sort of policies lie close to your interest?

I would say that going into it from an academic point of view, I’ve sat on the World Wildlife group of Canada. The environment is a big priority for me, but in so much as it relates to how we go about development of major resources in this province and this country so that it is equitable to future generations, so that we don’t get it wrong. I also, academically, was very interested in Aboriginal issues, because I was 13 when I moved from St. John’s to Goose Bay and that had a huge effect on me. Seeing how people lived up here, the importance of Aboriginal issues, and their quality of life. That became something very near and dear to my heart.

You keep your ear to what people are saying at the door to you. I’m very glad that Justin came out with the Canada Child Benefit (policy) that cut taxes for people who make between 44,000 and 90,000 dollars. People are strapped, they’re worried about looking after their parents, and they’re worried about looking after their children. Everything just seems a lot more tenuous these days. It just doesn’t feel as solid as it used to in the past. They worry about their benefits, so anything that we can do to help out the middle class in this country it means that we are doing well for the economy. Anytime we’ve seen a spike in the economy of this country it’s always because we’ve had a healthy middle class, so anything that we can do to strengthen that is a step in the right direction. Going door to door is an education. Not to say that the other issues I have just discussed aren’t important, they are both vital. We have to look after each other.

How do you feel about Canada’s participation in the bombing in the Middle East?

I don’t like getting into things where we don’t know how things are going to go. The mission is very up in the air. Within our lifetimes alone, we understand where that can take us. It was just the other day that it was the 12th anniversary of George W. Bush standing by an aircraft carrier off the coast of California with a banner that said “Mission accomplished.” That was 12 years ago. Let’s just be very wary. We’ve always been a good ally. Certainly these guys, ISIS, are just desperate people who are just doing violent things. We just have to know what we’re getting ourselves into, if we’ve learned nothing else.

What do you make of that young guy, Omar Kadr, who just got released from prison? What do you think of his story and what has happened to him and how it has evolved?

I don’t know. He’s been detained for a long time, I’d prefer he had not been. I’ve followed this story. It’s one of those stories that you weren’t sure if it would ever end and if it did, would it end well. By all accounts, he killed an American soldier, he was considered a terrorist, he’s been found by a court to have served his time. All you can do with someone who has served their time as prescribed by a court, their punishment, all you can do is wish them well afterwards and hope that they can get on with their lives.

Do you think that the federal conservatives have made a bit of a political football out of him?

That’s a tough one. He was in an American prison with a great deal of controversy. When you think about when Obama first got elected, it was one of the first executive orders he had signed (to close the military prison at Quantanamo Bay). So the place doesn’t come without a great deal of controversy. I would have preferred that he had served his time in a Canadian court.

It’s meaningless to speculate about it I guess, but if Pierre Trudeau had been Prime Minister when all of this was going on, instead of Stephen Harper, how would he have treated the case?

I don’t know. Pierre would have abided by the court, he was a jurist. He believed in the court. I just think as a Canadian citizen, I think he should have served his time on Canadian soil.

Posted on May 20, 2015 .