The Conservative Party has changed because Canada has changed. Pierre Poilievre would be a divisive leader because Canadians have become more divided. He is the result, not the cause, of our growing alienation from each other.
Progressives and conservatives are increasingly unwilling to bridge divides. Each views the other as illegitimate. Justin Trudeau has proved to be a deeply polarizing Liberal Prime Minister – not just opposed, but loathed, by many on the right.
Many on the left feel the same way about Mr. Poilievre, who is widely expected to win the Conservative leadership race on Saturday. They call him dangerous and compare him with former U.S. president Donald Trump. Each side uses the same language to describe the other.
“The breathless reaction to Poilievre from his detractors has done much if not more to further accelerate polarization,” says Aaron Wudrick, director of domestic policy at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a think tank. “He is galvanizing both sides in a fight framed as between good versus evil for the soul of the nation, as opposed to just better or worse policies.”
These are our times.
In terms of policies, there is not that much daylight between Mr. Poilievre and, say, Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Both support high levels of immigration and defend sexual and gender minorities and a woman’s right to choose.
But Mr. Poilievre would differ from any previous Conservative leader in the depth of his disenchantment with the people and institutions that govern Canada.
“The one thing that sets him apart is that he is fundamentally more skeptical than other politicians are about the institutions of our country,’ said Peter Loewen, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. “He clearly has the view that the public administrative state in Canada is underperforming. That’s a hard view to contest, actually.”
Mr. Poilievre maintains that the actions of the Bank of Canada are in part to blame for inflation. He would fire its governor. He believes municipal governments have created a housing shortage through regulations and development charges. He would use the federal spending power to force them to lift restrictions.
He believes that print and broadcast media are biased against conservatives; he would cut their federal funding. That universities pander to the woke; he would force free-speech policies on them. That federal regulations impede growth and prosperity; he would cut the red tape. That carbon taxes and restrictions on development punish consumers and the oil-and-gas industry; he would end them.
For anyone who wonders what Mr. Poilievre means when he talks about firing the gatekeepers, this is what he means.
What might the millions of middle-class voters in the suburbs that ring our major cities, the voters who decide elections, make of all this? They don’t follow the political debates on Twitter. They do worry about the health of our hospitals and the price of food and rising interest rates and the quality of the local school. What will they think of Mr. Poilievre?
Most polls have the Liberals and Conservatives essentially tied, with little change from last year’s election.
Many of these suburban, middle-class voters are immigrants. What do they think of the people and institutions that govern them? Do they share the view of progressives who maintain Canada must move toward a more inclusive and environmentally responsible society?
Or do they share Mr. Poilievre’s chip-on-the-shoulder conviction that our institutions are failing and our leaders incompetent or corrupt? We will have to wait and see how, if at all, the polls change under a Poilievre leadership.
As leader, the MP for Carleton would have many things to prove. He pandered to those among his base who harbour baseless suspicions over the World Economic Forum and COVID-19 vaccines. Would he continue to nourish the conspiracists, or move away from them?
His French is excellent, but the Conservatives hold only 10 Quebec seats in the House of Commons. To win government, they should increase the size of their Quebec caucus. How would Quebeckers react to Mr. Poilievre?
Would he be able to impose discipline and unity on the fractious Conservative caucus? Would he put meat on the rhetorical bones of his platform? Could he inspire, or merely criticize?
The challenge of transitioning from political attack dog to prime minister may be more than Mr. Poilievre can manage. But Mr. Wudrick is bullish.
“I think he can win over suburban and immigrant voters. I think in a lot of cases he already has,” he said. “If he presents a positive vision and can resist his worst excesses, he may be untouchable.”
Mr. Poilievre would face a Liberal government that has lost many of its most able cabinet ministers – Navdeep Bains, Scott Brison, Marc Garneau, Ralph Goodale, Bill Morneau, Jane Philpott, Jody Wilson-Raybould; Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is scoffing at rumours she’s next – and that appears after seven years to be run mostly by Mr. Trudeau and a small clique of advisers. The Prime Minister reportedly told cabinet he intends to run in the next election. No federal leader has won four elections in a row since Wilfrid Laurier.
His government has an activist agenda that will include new supports for dental care and green energy, on top of other measures to combat global warming and the new national child-care plan.
Voters may welcome these programs. Or they may decide it is time to bring spending under control.
No one can say with certainty. But Prime Minister Pierre Poilievre is a real possibility in this land of deepening divides.
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