Ever since Stephen Harper took the Conservative Party of Canada below 100 seats in the House of Commons back in 2015, the history of the party has been like a sequel to the movie Groundhog Day.
Like the weatherman in that film, the Conservatives are caught in a time loop. The only way they can shake loose and get back into real time is by getting their approach to politics right.
Since Harper’s forced retreat from public life to ride the gravy train of right-wing political consulting, the party has gotten it emphatically wrong.
Despite three straight electoral losses, one under Harper, and two under the leadership of Harper mini-clones from his cabinet, the Conservatives are poised to select Pierre Poilievre on Sept. 10 as their next leader. Stay tuned for the fourth bellyflop in a row at the national polls.
The Conservatives are still the party of “Make Harperism Great Again." Instead of taking the rejections of 2015, 2019 and 2021 as signs of the urgent need to reconstruct a party that had grown authoritarian, undemocratic and out of touch, they have doubled down on the policies that have turned them into the perpetual opposition, including fossil fuel worship, environmental myopia, anti-democratic practices and dismissiveness towards Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
Poilievre is more of a Harper protégé than Andrew Scheer or Erin O’Toole ever were. Some Conservative commentators have tried to dry-clean Poilievre, saying he would come to the leadership with a clean slate. That is the stuff of nasal coffee rockets.
Poilievre was Harper’s personal attack chihuahua in the House of Commons, a job he pursued with such alacrity that he elbowed his way into cabinet as minister of state for democratic reform.
In that capacity, he produced legislation that actually made it harder to vote. But it was perfectly in keeping with the voter suppression antics of his Republican cousins in the U.S. There, the GOP has made a concerted effort to discourage voters of colour from going to the polls. They disguise their skullduggery as an answer to alleged massive voter fraud. Study after study has shown that no such widespread cheating exists. Just widespread voter suppression.
Poilievre was also ready to throw new Canadians under the bus when he supported Harper’s racist policies towards immigrants in a desperate attempt to appeal to the party base back in 2015 when the Harper regime was collapsing. Remember the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act? The Snitch Line? Remember when Harper mused publicly about banning civil servants from wearing niqabs?
Poilievre, also known as “Pipsqueak” and “Skippy,” didn’t exactly leap to the defence of the communities under attack. When Harper called, Poilievre dutifully rolled over and offered his belly for a rub.
At the time of his cabinet appointment, Skippy was criticized in unlikely places. Writing for Sun News, columnist Warren Kinsella reminded readers that Poilievre had referenced “tar babies” in the House of Commons, believed First Nations peoples needed a better work ethic rather than compensation for the residential schools atrocity and told his fellow MPs on a legislative committee “fuck you guys.”
Poilievre was, Kinsella wrote, “one of the most despicable, loathsome politicians to ever grace the national stage. He is pestilence made flesh.”
Kinsella’s purple progressive hyperbole aside, when the party began angling for a new leader Poilievre should have been thrown back as a juvenile fish.
Some might argue that this child-politician has changed over the years.
They're right. He’s gotten worse, judging by his behaviour during the Conservative leadership race. Bad habits ingrained over the years in office as an obedient political hitman have become reflexive habits. If a political jugular is available, Poilievre goes for it.
Take Justin Trudeau, chief whipping boy of the Poilievre crowd. Poilievre pilloried Trudeau during the outrageous trucker siege of Ottawa. That is like blaming U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland for the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. Poilievre welcomed the anarchists to Ottawa and later took selfies with participants of the “Freedom Convoy.”
While he was glad-handing the “truckers,” residents of Ottawa had the use and enjoyment of their own city suspended. It was three weeks of MAGA hats, confederate flags and peeing on monuments. And, oh yes, of horn-honking all night long by the guys who didn’t have to get up for work the next morning. It doesn’t take much energy to hold up a “Fuck Trudeau” sign.
Poilievre also blamed Trudeau for the price of gas and groceries, COVID mandates, distressed and isolated teenagers, western alienation, failing small businesses, a “coverup” budget and gatekeeper elites who run everything for their own benefit. It is an open question when he will get around to the shortcomings of the PM’s new haircut.
But Poilievre doesn’t restrict his use of the politics of anger and aggrievement to the Liberals. Consider the vicious attacks on fellow Conservatives seeking the party’s leadership. Patrick Brown was a serial liar, Pipsqueak claimed. Jean Charest, he said, was not a Conservative at all, but a Liberal.
And then the crowning disgrace of Poilievre’s campaign — walking away from an official leadership debate, even though the majority of members of his own party wanted a last look at the leadership hopefuls before casting their votes.
That revealed a lot about what Poilievre really thinks of the democratic system. Supercilious self-interest first, democracy only when necessary.
On the other hand, it would have been brutal for Poilievre to stand on the same stage and listen to Charest offering cogent policies on a range of issues, when all he had to offer was flying spittle and bumper-sticker red meat for the base.
While the usual suspects in the media rhapsodize about the “unstoppable Pierre Poilievre,” they are only partly right. He may be a shoo-in to take the prize on Sept. 10, but his chances of taking the country are next to none. One of the reasons for that has nothing to do with Poilievre. It has to do with the fact that the Conservatives can’t run a leadership convention without disgracing themselves.
When Scheer won, the man who came within a percentage point of beating him, Maxine Bernier, said Scheer prevailed with the help of “fake Conservatives.” Bernier soon left the party, describing it as “morally corrupt.”
On his way to victory, O’Toole called on three police forces to investigate Peter MacKay, his chief rival for the job, alleging theft of confidential information from his campaign.
This time around, Brown was demonized as a liar, and then drummed out of the leadership race altogether this month on allegations of rule-breaking that have yet to be substantiated.
Talk about issuing the verdict before the trial. And rather than postponing the leadership election, the party sent out ballots with Brown’s name on them. There was only one beneficiary of the party's shenanigans — Poilievre.
What is clear in all of this is that the Conservative Party of Canada is not a national party at all. It remains in essence a western protest party that overachieved for a brief period under Harper, and has since returned to its parochial roots. (Though Harper, despite his reputation for political acumen, only won a single majority government in five tries.)
That’s why the party could not abide a leader from east of Manitoba. Neither MacKay nor Bernier met that test and ever became leader.
And that is why Patrick Brown from Ontario and Jean Charest from Quebec, the two vote richest provinces in the country, were also unacceptable as leaders. They didn’t have the western pedigree.
In fact, they represented the entitled East to Harperites, which had been snapping up the benefits of Confederation and giving the cold shoulder to the West for decades. They couldn’t, like Poilievre, claim that they were born and grew up in Calgary.
Why is the party reaching back into the dead zones of the old Harper cabinet for the third time to pick a new leader?
One reason is the Conservative belief that anger and grievance politics can return them to power. Skippy is tailor-made for inciting rage, using the tried-and-true method of putting a single face to all that is wrong with the country. South of the border, Donald Trump pulled it off by successfully demonizing Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. Poilievre will try to do the same thing with Trudeau.
That might work with angry people who can’t work remotely from home, as a recent poll pointed out, or people who think Stephen Harper was a great prime minister.
But once Poilievre has to speak to a national audience, his messages — Trudeau-bashing, threatening to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada, and hailing cryptocurrency as the answer to inflation — will draw more laughs than votes.
Some people have said that once the Conservative leadership race wobbles to its anti-climactic end, Poilievre will merely “pivot” to a more centrist position to appeal to a wider audience. O’Toole tried that, after running on the right to win the top job, and no one believed him when he changed his spots.
And Poilievre is a Harper Conservative through and through. So rather than pivot, it is much more likely he will double down on the stuff that brings smiles to the faces of people who think vaccine mandates are a bad idea.
There is a reason that Harper’s public endorsement of Poilievre didn’t give his campaign a boost as a recent Nanos poll found. Skippy already has all the Kool-Aid drinkers from the Harper era in his corner.
The problem is the rest of the country, where people know there is more to governing than slagging your opponent. Until the Conservative party realizes that, it will always be stuck in political Groundhog Day.