ANALYSIS | Pierre Poilievre is a 21st century populist who thinks his moment has arrived

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During an interview in July — sometime after it became clear that he was more than likely to win the leadership race — Pierre Poilievre buried any notion that he would change his ways once he became leader of the Conservative Party.

“People know what to expect from me,” he said. “There is no grand pivot. I am who I am.”

Poilievre has never been a shrinking violet. He first ran for office when he was 24 years old and he was a central character in some of the biggest political battles of the Stephen Harper era.

But he has declared himself even more loudly over the past seven months. Notwithstanding any adjustments he makes to his message now that the Conservative leadership race is over (his speech on Saturday night before national television cameras was notably more genteel than he showed himself to be previously), he has been crystal clear about how he is willing to approach politics.

He is a talented politician, an ideologically motivated conservative and an aggressive populist. Canada has had populists before — from William Aberhart to John Diefenbaker to Rob Ford. But Poilievre’s ascent to the leadership of the Conservative Party marks the arrival of 21st century populism in Canada — the Internet-fuelled, resentment-driven wave that already has flooded American and British politics.

Capturing the Conservative id

In a different time and place, Conservatives might have been expected to turn to Jean Charest. But after being out of politics for nearly a decade, the former Quebec premier was rusty and slow.

Charest’s campaign was also aimed at the wrong part of the Conservative Party’s brain. His candidacy represented the most rational and conventional argument — that the party needed to make a broader appeal to those outside its partisan tent in order to win power again.

But Poilievre captured the Conservative id. After three consecutive losses to Justin Trudeau, after Erin O’Toole’s clumsy attempts to moderate some of the party’s positions and expand the party’s tent, Poilievre offered Conservatives an emotionally satisfying cri du coeur (“freedom!”) and an unabashed, combative leader to get behind.

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Poilievre’s stated goal is to make Canada the “freest” country in the world (a title currently held by either Singapore or Switzerland, depending on who’s counting) and “give Canadians back control of their lives.” His message is that “gatekeepers” are denying Canadians the prosperity, freedom and security that should be theirs.

He is most clear about what and whom he is against.

He embraced the self-styled “freedom convoy” protest and he opposes vaccine mandates and mask mandates. He would repeal the carbon tax and the clean fuel standard, and would change federal regulations to make it easier to approve oil and gas projects and pipelines.

He would reverse the Liberal government’s attempts to regulate major Internet platforms, which he says is akin to censorship. He would defund the CBC.

He has vowed to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada — Poilievre blames the governor for the high inflation afflicting countries around the world. He insists that sharply reducing government spending would solve the problem of inflation in Canada.

He promoted cryptocurrencies as a way to “take control of money from bankers and politicians” and “opt out of inflation” (though he seems to have put less emphasis on bitcoin and the like since the crypto market crashed this summer).

He also falsely accused the government of “spying” on Canadians during the pandemic after the Public Health Agency used aggregated mobile data to measure the effectiveness of public health restrictions. And he has promoted the erroneous idea that the government is pursuing a “fertilizer ban.”

Either with him or against him

Unlike some of the figures who have defined populism in recent years, Poilievre has not campaigned against immigration or attempted to divide voters along racial or ethnic lines. But he has embraced the language of populism and the fundamental idea that there are only friends and foes. If you are not with Poilievre, you must be against him.

He directs his ire at “elites” — the “elites in Ottawa,” the “wealthy elites,” the “ruling elite” — and “woke culture.” In an email to supporters in May, he claimed “the media, the pundits [and] the professors” say he shouldn’t attack Justin Trudeau as “strongly” as he does because a “cozy club of insiders” wants to maintain the status quo.

In August, he tweeted that “Liberal gatekeepers and corporate oligarchs” will shed “leftist tears” once he is in charge. (In the accompanying video, a supporter stood beside Poilievre drinking out of a mug with the words “leftist tears” written on it.)

Poilievre also has vowed that no minister in a government led by him would attend the annual conference of the World Economic Forum, an organization that is the subject of various conspiracy theories. (John Baird, one of the co-chairs of Poilievre’s campaign, attended the conference multiple times as a minister in Stephen Harper’s cabinet.)

Pierre Poilievre speaks during a press conference outside the Bank of Canada in Ottawa on April 28, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In addition to promising to defund the CBC, Poilievre has claimed that journalists with the other two major television networks — CTV and Global — are incapable of covering him objectively. When Global News published a story he disagreed with, Poilievre accused the network of being a “Liberal mouthpiece.”

Party leadership races traditionally are rather genteel affairs, but Poilievre ran scorched-earth campaigns against his two nearest rivals, Charest and Patrick Brown. When he chose to decline the invitation to participate in a third official leadership debate, his campaign manager publicly blasted his own party for choosing a “Laurentian elite liberal media personality” to moderate a previous debate.

If there are any federal Conservatives who have misgivings about the style or substance of Poilievre’s politics, they have been relatively silent over the last seven months. 

Charest’s worries and Sheila Fraser’s warning

In the waning moments of that last debate, Charest warned that “anger is not a political program.” But the nearest Charest ever got to making a fully developed argument against Poilievre was in May, when he said Poilievre’s comments about the Bank of Canada were “irresponsible.”

“We cannot afford to have any leader who goes out there and deliberately undermines the confidence in institutions,” Charest said.

He probably didn’t mean to, but Charest was echoing something said the last time Poilievre was centre-stage in Canadian politics.

In 2014, Poilievre was the sponsor of the Fair Elections Act, the Conservative government’s controversial rewrite of federal election laws. Numerous experts and critics came forward to take issue with elements of the bill and warn that it would — without justification — make it harder for some Canadians to vote. One of those critics was Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer at the time.

In response, Poilievre publicly questioned Mayrand’s motivations, alleging before a Senate committee that Mayrand wanted “more power, a bigger budget and less accountability.”

Sheila Fraser, the widely respected former auditor general, appeared before the same committee a few hours later and expressed deep concern over what Poilievre had done.

“It troubles me greatly — I would say disturbs me greatly — to see comments that are made, and I will be quite blunt, by the minister … attacking personally the chief electoral officer,” she said.

“This serves none of us well. It undermines the credibility of these institutions. And at the end of the day, if this continues, we will all pay, because no one will have faith in government or in chief electoral officers or our democratic system.”

Former auditor general Sheila Fraser took issue with Pierre Poilievre’s verbal attack on the chief electoral officer in 2014. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Eight years later, those same concerns are being raised by a wave of populism that thrives on conflict and opposition.

Opposite Fraser’s warning is Poilievre’s bet that this moment is primed for him, his message and his politics.

It’s been a traumatic two and a half years. Inflation is up and interest rates are rising. Housing is hard to afford. Things don’t seem to be working — from airports to passport offices to emergency rooms. The Liberals have been in government for nearly seven years. And the future is full of uncertainty.

Poilievre says he feels people’s pain and that voters can find hope in his promises of dramatic change.

Whatever happens next, it will not happen quietly.

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