Tom Mulcair: Take a closer look at what Pierre Poilievre is peddling

Pierre Poilievre delivered an epic stemwinder to the Conservative Party faithful in Quebec City on Friday. He threw in every simplistic solution he’s been touting for years.

Canadians should start paying more attention to his nostrums and begin asking tough questions. Those are the types of questions that Poilievre likes to avoid because, in his view, journalists who ask them are part of a conspiracy against him.

I had the opportunity to work across the aisle from Poilievre for over a decade. They can lose the glasses, drop the tie, slow the cadence and reduce the Brylcreem. Those of us who got to know his overheated demagoguery firsthand know that nothing will have really changed — and that’s the danger.

Poilievre has very little experience or expertise in dealing with big problems. When he finally did make cabinet, after years of languishing on the backbenches, he proposed an electoral reform that would have stacked the deck in favour of the Conservatives. Even Stephen Harper had to back away from it.

He’s had to apologize any number of times for mean-spirited and bone-headed pronouncements that were often hurtful. He did so again this summer when he slagged a woman’s home as a tiny little shack, to suit his narrative of the day. On the day of the apology for residential schools, he insulted Indigenous Canadians.

He claims to know so much about the economy that he’s going to fire the Governor of the Bank of Canada for incompetence. Yet he tells Canadians that bitcoin can be a hedge against inflation.

People who know him will tell you that Poilievre has a good sense of humour. I can confirm that he does. He’d often regale the other backbenchers during his interventions in the House, but his humour was almost always at someone else’s expense.

Pierre Poilievre hasn’t changed, he’s just found, and started listening to, really good communications advisors.

Trudeau has hit a wall

Americans have term limits for some elected offices, notably that of president. Two four-year terms and you’re out on the lecture circuit.

In Canada, you can stay on as long as the voters will put up with you. That’s the real wall Justin Trudeau is hitting now. It has been eight long years since he triumphed over Harper’s Conservatives and the NDP that I led at the time.

Trudeau’s run included three years of pandemic. No event since 2015 is more important than that unprecedented health crisis in assessing the deep difference of approach Poilievre’s theories could have wrought.

As we learned during the illegal occupation of Ottawa by truckers, the individual in charge really does matter. Who we choose as prime minister, of course, matters most.

The then chief of the Ottawa police turned out to be wholly incapable of handling the events that unfolded. He’d been hired based on criteria that clearly didn’t include expertise in crisis management. It was only after his hasty resignation that a plan could be put in place to deal with and ultimately end the crisis.

In that case, the error was reversible. It’s not so easy if we put the wrong person in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Leadership matters

As Ottawa replaced its police chief, families were still suffering because a few hundred malcontents had decided they’d occupy Ottawa until the government was replaced.

What did Poilievre do to help put an end to the drama? Far from being opposed to those involved in that illegal occupation, he brought them donuts and encouragement. That’s the same Poilievre who talks about the importance of respecting the rule of law.

Instead of showing leadership, Poilievre surfed on a populist protest wave that led to police being put in danger at a border crossing in Alberta and the closing of the crucial Ambassador Bridge in Ontario.

That’s the Pierre Poilievre we should all be concerned about: someone who will say or do anything if he calculates that it can suit his partisan and personal interests, then scurry away when it turns against him.

People walk past a truck bearing a flag calling for Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre to become Prime Minister, during the “Freedom Convoy” protest, in Ottawa, on Feb. 16, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

What would Poilievre have done differently?

Poilievre correctly states that Trudeau had already burned through $100 billion in new debt before the pandemic hit, with nothing to show for it. Where we should be paying attention is his statement that he’ll get to a balanced budget despite the massive borrowing that occurred to deal with the pandemic.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always believed that as a general rule governments shouldn’t spend more than what they take in and shouldn’t take in more than what’s required to do the work of government. It’s on that last part — the work of government — that Poilievre’s promises should be critically analyzed.

Poilievre has it easy. He only has to say now that there was too much borrowing during the pandemic. He’ll never say what he would’ve done differently.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, millions of Canadian families lost their livelihood overnight. Trudeau pushed aside a first version of a plan that was too complicated. He brought in programs for aid that got cheques out rapidly so families could put food on the table and have a job to go back to. He will always deserve recognition for that leadership and for making people his priority.

What are Poilievre’s priorities for the spending cuts that would be necessary to achieve his stated goal?

Poilievre doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’d dump the new dental program for kids. His disdain for what he views as the unholy Liberal/NDP alliance makes it clear that that program would soon be on the chopping block. That would be tragic, socially and economically. Good teeth are a key determinant of lifelong health and many families just cannot afford to have their kids seen by a dentist. It’s good policy and a wise long term investment, but Poilievre doesn’t seem to think long term.

Poilievre and Quebec: Politics by focus group

Much has been said about Poilievre’s outreach to Quebec voters. Don’t hold your breath. Quebecers don’t like to get married. It’s a sociological detail, but just one of many you’d have to understand if you’re going to pitch to Quebecers. The same thing seems to apply in politics. In one generation, Quebecers have voted for a majority of Conservative, Liberal, Bloc and NDP MPs in different elections.

The inability to figure out that Quebec really is different, has meant that the Conservatives have never won more than a dozen of the province’s 78 seats, since Mulroney. It’s not a focus group led by a Toronto advertising firm that’s going to change that.

In his speech and that of Peter MacKay earlier Friday, the Conservatives made it clear that they’re going to shove a new pipeline through Quebec, the same way Trudeau shoved the $32-billion Trans Mountain pipeline across B.C.

Despite their tendency to change voting affiliation en masse from election to election, Quebecers share strong core values on environmental issues. The question of pipelines will slowly trickle from last weekend’s convention into the mainstream.

Good luck with that, Mr. Poilievre.

Magic and loss

Poilievre has had his magic weekend in Quebec City, a tour de force. Trudeau will return from India once they’ve fixed his flying clunker. (Like 24 Sussex, a memorable symbol of the Trudeau years.) Parliament will soon resume and Candians will be asking: when is this going to be over?

The answer, of course, is whenever Trudeau and Singh screw up the courage to let Canadians decide. Or, perhaps, when Trudeau finally takes his “walk in the snow.”

In the meantime, Canadians would be well advised to listen carefully to what Poilievre is saying and how it could affect their quality of life.

Micro-targeting a sub-question on complex transgender issues is the same ‘thin edge of the wedge’ technique used by conservatives in the matter of reproductive choice. And a wedge issue it is.

‘We’re not against abortion, we’re just against sex-selection abortion.’ ‘We’re not against trans people, we’re simply talking about a parent’s right to know.’ Yeah, sure.

The Conservatives have a monumental war chest that far outweighs those of all other parties combined. They intend to use it.

Stay tuned for more ads aimed at the Liberals and the NDP across Canada and, yes, even the Bloc in Quebec.

Modern politics is all about polling, focus groups and masses of information, on every person in our society, that can be used to develop intelligence on how to target issues and win votes. There’s nothing new in politicians telling voters what they want to hear. It’s the sheer quantity of the data available that is different. The deeper your pockets, the deeper the information you can buy.

Trudeau and Poilievre do have at least one thing in common: they’re both exceptionally skilled politicians. Both ran and won in tough ridings. Both made impeccable runs to their respective party’s leadership.

Trudeau is deservedly rapped for his phony virtue-signaling and his objectively abysmal record on key issues like climate change. He also knows how to tell people what they want to hear but, unfortunately, rarely does what he’s promised them. At its core, though, with NDP guidance, his government has generally tilted in favour of the wider public good.

The same cannot be said of Harper or, I would predict, Poilievre.

What ‘elites’?

Poilievre rails against the “Laurentian elites.” I live in the heart of the Laurentians and can safely report that we don’t have a heck of a lot of elites. Just hard working folks of the type you’ll meet in every other corner of Canada. But using dog-whistle terminology to divide one group of Canadians against the others is part of the Poilievre package.

Poilievre tends to see nothing good in…goodness, in generosity of spirit and benevolence. He knows what’s right and he’ll try to shove it down your throat if you don’t see things the way he does. It’ll take more than a one-hour speech to paper over that fundamental characteristic. That’s why I sincerely believe that people should take a much closer look at the contents of the snake oil that Poilievre is prescribing.

As our extraordinary singer and songwriter, Joni Mitchell, once put it: “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017

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