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Federal Politics

Get Ready for Prime Minister Pierre Poilievre

Unless the other parties change the narrative, the Conservatives will romp to power.

Michael Harris 29 Jan 2024The Tyee

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. His investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

Nothing is clearer in Canadian politics than that the next federal election is Pierre Poilievre’s to lose.

According to the latest Nanos poll, the Conservative Party of Canada has a 13-point lead over the governing Liberals. Poilievre has a 10-point lead over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the choice for PM, though according to the polls, neither man is the rage.

There is no mystery about why Canadians are unhappy with the current government. Times are undeniably tough. Canadians still have a COVID hangover, feel angry about affordability issues on everything from homes to groceries and worry about the stalling economy.

A lot have also developed a visceral dislike of Trudeau. There are a variety of reasons for that, from deficits stretching out to a distant fiscal horizon, to his occasional lapses of personal judgment. You don’t feast on caviar when a lot of your fellow citizens are staring into stone soup.

The question is this: Despite the Conservatives’ commanding lead in the polls, does Poilievre have the political maturity to maintain his lead and close the deal in an election that must be held by Oct. 20, 2025?

Now is the time to ask that question, because Poilievre’s journey is about to enter a new phase.

Trudeau hinted at that last week during a pep talk to his beleaguered caucus following the cabinet retreat in Montreal. If the polls have it right, half of Liberal MPs would be in danger of losing their seats if an election were called now.

Most coverage of that speech focused on Trudeau’s need to reassure the troops that he still has it in him to lead them in a general election — and not over a cliff.

The speech was critically important, because Liberal MP Ken McDonald had publicly mused that with the polls reading like an obituary, it might be time for a leadership review. The Newfoundland MP quickly walked that suggestion back, and the caucus closed ranks around Trudeau — for now.

But there was something else Trudeau said when trying to rally the troops that could make all the difference in this political year for Poilievre. He said that it is easier to be in opposition than in government.

Trudeau explained that in opposition, a leader talks only about what he wants to talk about, almost always the other leader’s shortcomings. In government, the prime minister has to talk about everything, including things that don’t necessarily qualify for their personal highlight reel.

Like freebie luxury vacations, or immigration levels set so high they exacerbate the housing shortage for everyone, including immigrants. Or a health-care system that appears to be overwhelmed. Or palpitations at the gas pump.

Poilievre has capitalized masterfully on the sense of anger in the country over these kitchen-table issues. He has a sharp mind, and an even sharper tongue.

According to the polls, female voters remain cool to Poilievre. But that hasn’t stopped him from riding the sense of public grievance further than any politician in recent history. Male voters love this guy as much as they appear to hate Trudeau.

The bottom line at this moment? Poilievre is currently mopping the floor with his political opponents. And he will keep doing that until they come up with a better approach to dealing with his relentless and consequential attacks.

Trudeau suggested a possible strategy. Look for the Liberals and NDP to go after Poilievre on the things he doesn’t want to talk about. Can the guy who likes to hold others to account stand up to scrutiny himself, when the political conversation gets uncomfortable?

One of those uncomfortable things is detailed public policy. The Conservative leader has a daunting list of grievances. And they resonate profoundly with Canadians. But he remains decidedly thin on solutions.

Poilievre’s greatest vulnerability is on how, or even if, he would fight climate change. He might rage against carbon pricing, but he has so far declined to flesh out the Conservatives’ policy, promising to release details later.

That is textbook opposition politics. The longer you delay revealing your policies, the less time your opponents have to pick them apart.

But the environment is one of only a handful of top-of-mind issues that Canadians feel passionately about. They want to hear solutions, not just slogans, even when those slogans, like “Axe the tax,” amount to bumper-sticker genius.

For now, all Poilievre has on the table is a vague reference to carbon capture, a technology in its infancy that is nowhere near up to the task of controlling carbon emissions.

More than that, his solution is potentially provocative, suggesting he supports burning fossil fuels well into the future. He hasn’t even said whether he would keep Canada in the Paris climate accord.

(A point of historical reference: As prime minister, Stephen Harper immediately abandoned Canada’s Kyoto obligations. In the first year of his government’s Clean Air Act, greenhouse gas emissions zoomed to record levels.)

Despite Poilievre’s YouTube hit “Housing Hell,” the CPC is also vulnerable on the very emotional issues of home ownership and rental costs.

His “documentary,” which was more of an emotional rather than a rational exercise, hit all the hot buttons. As clickbait, it was irresistible. Poilievre’s rage-farming was particularly successful with young Canadians. And why not? Finding rental accommodation, let alone their own home, is a formidable challenge these days.

But so far, Poilievre’s proposed solutions are simply a reprise of old Conservative tropes: cut government spending, cut red tape and turn the problem over to the private sector. Spoken like the free-marketer that he is.

But as pointed out in a fact check of “Housing Hell” in The Tyee, Poilievre’s “documentary” was an exercise in slick emotional incitement, not a sound analysis of the problem.

That matters. If you don’t get the problem right, you can’t provide the solution, except in a simplistic, politically opportunistic way.

As Jen St. Denis’s article points out, the housing problem didn’t begin in 2015 with the election of Trudeau, as Poilievre would have Canadians believe.

It actually began in the 1980s, when both Conservative and Liberal governments got out of the business of building thousands of units of affordable rental housing. Instead, they pushed home ownership.

As for Poilievre’s contention that the private sector can get the job done, perhaps. But that won’t happen as long as interest rates remain high. Contractors won’t build when it costs more, and the end product may be too expensive to sell.

Poilievre’s answer is to fire the guy who raised interest rates, the governor of the Bank of Canada. Never mind that the central bank’s monetary policy has been instrumental in bringing down inflation by nearly five points over the past year.

According to Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem, Canada must “stay the course” on higher interest rates until inflation stabilizes at a sustainable level. Sound like a firing offence to you? Or just toughing things out by dealing with the root of the problem — inflation?

And then there is Poilievre’s promise to cut government spending, which he blames for a variety of problems, including inflation. But with one notable exception, he has been silent on which government programs he would cut.

The exception is his repeated pledge to defund the CBC. At the business end of an accountant’s pencil, that might look like a good way to save a billion-plus dollars a year. But politically, it is a curious policy for a populist politician. The CBC has its detractors, and its problems, but Canadians generally like it.

Over the years, Nanos polling has found that fewer than one in five Canadians want to decrease CBC funding, let alone see the whole thing axed.

In a 2019 major poll commissioned by the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (now Friends of Canadian Media), Nanos found that four out of five Canadians trusted the CBC to protect Canada’s identity and culture.

By comparison, the trust levels in private broadcasters and cable networks were markedly lower. And the Liberals were the party that respondents believed would be most likely to protect the CBC.

In a fall 2023 poll conducted by Angus Reid, just 36 per cent of Canadians favoured the complete defunding of the public broadcaster, including 72 per cent of Conservative voters. Ditching the CBC may be red meat for the Conservative base, but it will be a tough sell to a wider audience in a general election. Not an inconsequential point in an era when independent voters determine who wins elections.

And there is another problem with defunding the CBC. It has the unfortunate resonance of MAGA thinking. It is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s threat to take away the broadcast licences of TV networks he says are biased against him, along with defunding the FBI. Defunding is a Trumpian word.

Dissatisfaction with Trudeau may be so deep and so irreversible that Poilievre’s draconian promise to kill the CBC, and his vague and sometimes insipid policies in other areas, won’t change the mood of Canadians to kick the Liberals out.

But in politics, if you don’t clearly define yourself, your opponents will happily do it for you — especially when they sense you may be about to win power.

After a few decidedly passive and even lazy years, the Liberals and the NDP are starting to fight back. What you get with Poilievre, they say, is the cut-and-gut approach to government. And they are putting up the Conservative leader’s voting record as proof.

Poilievre voted against the Canada Child Benefit, the Canada Dental Benefit and $10-a-day child care. In a recent tweet, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh reminded Canadians that the Conservative leader also voted against a national school food program, Bill C-322.

“Pierre Poilievre and his Conservatives refuse to stand up to grocery CEOs, while they block help for kids that go to school hungry.”

And so the counter-narrative begins — the accusation against the Conservatives of being callous and without compassion as the answer to the Tory charge of Liberal/NDP profligacy and incompetence.

Given the inherent volatility of those charges and countercharges, what Poilievre does as leader from now on takes on critical importance. Even with a commanding lead in the polls, unforced errors by the leader could change the equation.

On the positive side, Poilievre was savvy enough not to have any Conservative MPs involved in the Danielle Smith/Tucker Carlson fiasco.

He clearly learned from the Christine Anderson episode, in which three of his MPs met with the member of the extreme right-wing Alternative for Germany party. No one got dumped from caucus over that, but Poilievre was forced to denounce Anderson’s “vile” politics to weather the media and political storm.

In the Smith/Carlson controversy, Poilievre demonstrated a level of political maturity that helped him avoid a direct connection to MAGA politics.

Carlson is the podcaster who backs Vladimir Putin rather than Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Ukraine war; the guy accused of making homophobia jokes about Justin Trudeau; the guy who vowed to “liberate” Canada; the guy Smith asked to put federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in his “crosshairs.”

But Poilievre’s astute read of the potentially disastrous Smith/Carlson controversy was totally missing in two recent blunders by the Conservative leader. One involved Ukraine, and the other, the mayors of Quebec’s two biggest cities.

In voting against an update of the free trade deal between Canada and Ukraine, Poilievre said he opposed the deal because it would foist carbon pricing on Ukraine.

In fact, Ukraine has had carbon pricing for years and vigorously contradicted Poilievre’s assertions.

The political upshot? The Conservative leader looked like a liar, and the Globe and Mail’s Bob Fife said just that on national television.

Trudeau accused Poilievre of supporting Putin by voting against the deal. Not good for the credibility of someone who wants to be prime minister, particularly in a country where people of Ukrainian descent make up four per cent of the population.

Just as damaging, at least in Quebec, was Poilievre’s accusation posted on X that the mayors of Montreal and Quebec City were “incompetent.”

Despite massive federal financial contributions, housing starts are well down in both cities. The Conservative leader blamed the mayors for “blocking construction projects.”

Once again, Poilievre had his facts wrong, misconstruing how municipal financing works in Quebec. The federal government cannot give cash directly to municipalities. It has to run all such transactions through the provincial government.

It ended in a political black eye for Poilievre. Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante fired back with gusto.

They said that Poilievre was practising “la petite politique,” petty politics. Not only had he misunderstood municipal financing, but he had shown “contempt” for public office-holders elected by Quebecers. Trudeau described Poilievre’s attack on the mayors as condescending and ignorant.

Apart from the nuts and bolts of politics, the daily stuff, there is the three-dimensional chess game that plays out in the background. Things that happen that no one controls, or can reasonably foresee. And sometimes, serendipity is more powerful than the best-laid plans.

Poilievre caught a major break in that regard in recent days. Just as Trudeau was doing his best to hit the reset button to inspire his understandably dispirited troops, the Federal Court came in with a major ruling that jolted the Trudeau government.

It found that Trudeau’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to shut down the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa two years ago was “not justified” and violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — contrary to the conclusion reached by commissioner Paul Rouleau after his public inquiry in 2022.

For Poilievre, the guy who brought doughnuts to the truckers as they held Ottawa hostage for three weeks, it was a political windfall. If the decision stands up under appeal, it would vindicate Poilievre’s view that Trudeau was heavy-handed, if not dictatorial, in his response to the protest.

“He caused the crisis by dividing people. Then he violated Charter rights to illegally suppress citizens,” Poilievre said. “As PM, I will unite our country for freedom.”

A more mature politician might have waited for the appeals process to play out before blaming the prime minister personally for a protest that turned into an occupation. Can Pierre Poilievre develop that maturity after seven terms as an MP famous for his bark and his bite?

On that momentous question, the jury is still out.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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