Stampede political season in Calgary this year is a homecoming for Pierre Poilievre, making his front-runner status even more conspicuous at the latest gathering of Conservative leadership candidates.
Despite representing a federal riding on the outskirts of Ottawa, Mr. Poilievre hails from Alberta’s largest city. He speaks nostalgically about delivering newspapers in the southwest Calgary neighbourhood where he grew up and walking his dog in Fish Creek Provincial Park, and notes that he had a minimum-wage job picking up garbage at the Stampede midway.
His schedule at this year’s festivities has been jam-packed. Somehow, he was invited to ride a horse in the parade. There are lineups to get a photo with the man many presume will win the September leadership vote.
Organizers for Mr. Poilievre’s campaign say they are having to make sure venues have enough room for the crowds they expect at fundraising events across the province this week.
“It’s so good to be home,” Mr. Poilievre said, speaking at the Calgary Conservative Stampede Barbecue Saturday evening, a yearly fundraising event that had its importance solidified in Stephen Harper’s years as leader. The candidates didn’t debate one another. But all four present – Mr. Poilievre, Jean Charest, Leslyn Lewis and Roman Baber – gave short speeches. Scott Aitchison was a last-minute cancellation.
Ms. Lewis received the biggest applause from the 1,000-person crowd, after Mr. Poilievre. Jean Charest got cheers and some scattered jeers, but still came forward with a targeted plea to Alberta. Mr. Charest is Mr. Poilievre’s closest competition – especially since Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, has been disqualified from the race.
The former premier of Quebec made his case to party members on two points: First, he would give the province’s concerns and grievances special clout with an “Alberta Accord,” should he become prime minister. This would be a special agreement to address Alberta-specific concerns, such as equalization or control over pension investments or police forces. He said he would meet the premier of Alberta within 30 days of assuming office, and hold a larger meeting with all the premiers within six months.
And second, Mr. Charest spoke about his belief that he’s best positioned to win the whole country. He pointed out that the Conservatives lost three elections to the Trudeau Liberals since 2015 – the past two especially pitifully. In a slight nod to the belief by some that Mr. Poilievre is too right wing to win ridings in Central Canada, Mr. Charest made his case by saying “we can’t run the risk of losing.”
Each one of the candidates had a Calgary-specific pitch for the heartland of Canadian Conservative policy-making, and fundraising. Mr. Baber talked about ending the country’s equalization program in favour of a massive tax cut for every Canadian. Ms. Lewis talked about the concern from farmers that they’re facing carbon pricing while not getting credit for their already-in-place carbon-sequestration practices.
Everyone talked about cancelling federal energy legislation that makes building pipeline projects go through a particularly onerous regulatory process for approval. Every candidate, except for Mr. Charest, spoke about ending the carbon tax.
But it’s not just about carbon pricing, equalization or oil. A primary concern of many Alberta Conservatives is choosing a leader with enough emotional connection to party members and voters that they can keep the party united, as well as unseating the federal Liberals.
And although Alberta is often seen by the rest of the country as a political monolith, and a lock for Mr. Poilievre, there are people – including Conservatives – who are worried too about his overconfidence in cryptocurrencies or ill-defined plans to make Canada “the freest country on Earth.”
But like voters in other parts of the country, some are listening to his anti-establishment focus on issues such as inflation and housing costs, which speak directly to Canadians’ economic anxieties. Winning a clear majority in the first round of balloting for the leadership, which Mr. Poilievre’s supporters believe is possible, will quiet a lot of internal dissent.
The Stampede party fundraiser this weekend was likely to be one of the last major gatherings of federal Conservative candidates before the votes are tallied in September. There was no repeat of the combativeness of the debates earlier in the leadership contest, where Mr. Poilievre talked about Mr. Charest being a Liberal and his “scandal-plagued” years in provincial politics, and Mr. Charest appeared the outsider for his criticism of the trucker blockades.
Mr. Charest began his Stampede speech with praise for the other leadership contenders, including Mr. Poilievre. As for the MP from Carleton, he didn’t have anything critical to say about his rivals – perhaps a result of being back at home, perhaps a result of feeling more confident by the day.
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