Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Tuesday April 26, 2022
Pierre Poilievre’s infuriating campaign to be Canada’s Conservative leader
In September, Canadian Conservatives will choose their next leader. The last two, Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole, will go down in history as a couple of one-and-dones — leaders who ran against a prime minister, failed to form a government and were ousted by their party soon after. Never mind that each won more votes than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party. Parliamentary democracy doesn’t simply tabulate the popular vote and declare a winner. Only seat count and the capacity to command the confidence of the House of Commons matter, and the two most recent Conservative leaders couldn’t get the job done. The next one might.
Of the leadership candidates, member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre is particularly infuriating and reckless. He peddles an angry and appealing message: that Canadians are getting screwed, and he’s here to save them. The recklessness isn’t so much in the tone of his messaging — folks ought to be angry at an economic and political system that structurally marginalizes, underpays and excludes them — but rather Poilievre’s plan, or lack thereof, to address the underlying causes of discontent while demonizing the state capacity that will be necessary for reform.
Poilievre is a market fundamentalist and ideologue. He believes government is the problem, deficits and debts are a threat to the well-being of this generation of Canadians and the next, cryptocurrency is the solution to inflation, and the carbon tax must go because it’s wasteful and useless. He believes in the libertarian conception of freedom all the way. In February, he boosted the occupiers in Ottawa — a convoy of truckers and hangers-on who besieged the city for a month — saying he was “proud” of and stood with them.
On housing, Poilievre is tapping into deep anger at surging prices that make home ownership impossible for many and have created an affordability crisis in the rental market. He blames “big city gatekeepers” and says he’ll make federal transfers of cash to municipalities dependent on new development approvals. Never mind that this is what the federal government is more or less undertaking to do, or that neither Poilievre nor the Liberals will do anything sufficient to address the root of the crisis: the financialization and commodification of an essential need. No government or leadership hopeful will touch home equity, the third rail of Canadian politics.
The danger of a such a populist campaign is that it captures and stokes resentment while building up expectations that are unlikely to be met. That resentment must go somewhere, and the risk that it is channeled into anti-statism and scapegoating is high. This would undermine the core means by which many of the problems affecting angry Canadians, especially young folks, might be relieved: the state.
Poilievre is a politician in the mold of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan — practitioners of economic and social policies, such as the trickle-down theory and deregulation, long disproved and disgraced but making a comeback as anger at rising prices, insufficient salary growth and pandemic fatigue grow. His politics fit the moment, so much so that he’s a top contender to become leader of Canada’s Conservative Party. If he does, he’ll face an aging Liberal government, with or without Trudeau at its helm, in or before late 2025. He could become prime minister.
Already, Poilievre is gaining momentum, mobilizing hundreds, even thousands, to turn out at his rallies. And new research by David Coletto of Abacus Data shows that the crowds are reflective of support for Poilievre’s messaging among Canadians. More than half of those surveyed by Coletto agreed with the message of Poilievre’s campaign launch video and his core themes of anti-statism, working-class support and freedom. Positive responses cut across most age groups — especially among those ages 30 to 44. He also performed strongly across education levels. On balance, 49 percent of respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” consider voting for the Conservative Party if he was leader — including 32 percent of current Liberal voters, 88 percent of Conservatives, 27 percent of New Democrats, 40 percent of Greens and 78 percent of those who support the far-right People’s Party.
In short, Poilievre’s campaign resonates with Canadians. People are angry, anxious and tired. They want to hear politicians talk solutions. That’s what Poilievre is doing, even if he’s out of his depth when it comes to delivering them. After all, stoking resentment and promising quick, easy fixes to complex problems is often good politics, if bad policy. It worked for Donald Trump. It may work for France’s Marine Le Pen (Update: it didn’t.)
But eventually the bill will come due — and Poilievre won’t be able to pay it. When he fails and the damage is done, the country will be left all the worse. That will produce another cycle of resentment, anti-statism, backlash and decay just when we need long-term state solutions.
Given Poilievre’s appeal and the stakes at hand, the center and especially the left must take him seriously and come up with countermessaging to mobilize those he appeals to — before it’s too late. (The Washington Post)