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Federal Politics

A Spring Election Pitting Trudeau Against Poilievre?

If populist Pierre is the Conservative leader, brace for his Trumpish tactics in Parliament.

Michael Harris 9 Sep

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

When Thomas Hobbes wrote that without government life would be “nasty, brutish and short,” he could also have been describing the upcoming session of Parliament.

When MPs return this month, get ready for rock ’em, sock ’em politics. But don’t worry. It won’t last long. By spring, the whole parliamentary Pier 9 brawl could well end in yet another trip to the polls.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, new haircut and all, will bear the brunt of the grumpiness roiling through the land, or at least his detractors hope he does. One thing’s for sure: there have been better times to be the incumbent.

Grocery bills look more like car payments thanks to inflation. To get runaway prices under control, the Bank of Canada keeps raising interest rates, as it did again this week. In time, that may help. But for the moment, it merely turns the screws on people seeking or renewing mortgages.

The price of gas is a daily reminder of how much poorer everyone seems to be, drawing attention to Ottawa’s carbon tax of 11.1 cents per litre. Critics say the policy doesn’t work. Some provinces like Nova Scotia want out of the federal system — even though the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Ottawa’s carbon tax is constitutional.

Systems unravelling

The health-care system is sputtering like an old lawnmower. After two years of COVID, doctors and especially nurses, the forgotten people of the system, are beyond unhappy. Although the provinces run health care, Ottawa is taking heat for not paying its fair share of the costs.

What was once a 50/50 split has turned into the provinces footing the bill for 70 per cent of health-care costs. If we get another wave of COVID this fall in tandem with a bad flu season, as they have had in Australia, the system could collapse. Even Trudeau admitted that Ontario Premier Doug Ford was right when he claimed that the status quo isn’t working anymore.

Ditto for the teaching profession, where there are shortages across the country. As of May, British Columbia had 500 vacant positions across multiple school districts. Several other provinces are having trouble attracting and keeping educators.

The pandemic has put a tremendous burden on teachers. They have been under pressure to keep the classrooms open because everyone agrees that the mental well-being of students is at stake. But what about the mental well-being of teachers? A recent study by the Canadian Federation of Teachers found that 70 per cent of the 15,000 educators surveyed said they were “very stressed” and increasingly “unhappy.”

The queue of immigration applicants hoping to come to Canada is longer than the lineup at a Tim Hortons drive-thru on a rainy day. There are now more than 2.7 million people waiting to have their applications processed, up 300,000 from June.

Canada’s biggest airport, Toronto Pearson International, is an exercise in travel masochism. Once viewed as the best airport in the world, Toronto’s air hub is now seen as one of the worst. Now when you head out to catch a flight, you have to bring survival rations and an overnight bag. What happened?

So Trudeau will be on the spot and in the spotlight. As if the policy issues facing him aren’t enough, he is also suffering from declining personal approval numbers. And that has led to constant noise from anonymous voices inside the caucus that it might be time for something more basic than a change in his appearance.

A ‘Pierre Pivot’?

So who is the most likely to benefit from the fact that the country is bummed out? The glib answer is Pierre Poilievre. His supporters see him as the only authentic Harper conservative. His detractors see him as a potty-mouthed, underachieving nerd. After yet another fiddled leadership contest, it looks like Poilievre will be leading the Conservative Party of Canada after Saturday night. But will it be all downhill from there?

Likely yes. Because preaching to the converted is one thing, talking to the whole country is another. It is far from certain how firing the governor of the Bank of Canada, banning his ministers from attending the World Economic Forum, crypto-crapola economics and primal screams of “freedom” will win hearts, minds and votes across Canada.

Poilievre hopes that he can ride the anger train to power, the way another unqualified candidate became president of the United States for one term. Trump demonized Hillary Clinton, and Poilievre will try to do the same thing to Trudeau using similar techniques. Tom Mulcair recently told me that Canada is “too good a country” for that to happen here.

Some wags have claimed that once Poilievre becomes leader, Canadians will be treated to the Pierre Pivot. Suddenly, there will be photos of Pierre posing with children, petting small animals and wearing the glued-on smile of a guy trying to be something he’s not.

I’m not buying the Pierre Pivot. After sucking up to the Conservative Party’s hard right to win the leadership, Erin O’Toole tried to become Mr. Middle of the Road. He ended as political roadkill. His transparently false reset won him even less seats than the hapless Andrew Scheer captured when he was leader.

So what Canadians will see in the new Conservative leader is pure Pierre — fangs, venom and the smirk. The fact is Poilievre is a dyed-in-the-wool acolyte of Stephen Harper, proud of his far-right populist views and unapologetic for his dismal record as a member of a government that ignored the environment, abandoned Indigenous peoples, undercut democracy and despised the press.

And oh yes, a government that added $150 billion to the national debt during its time in office.

Poilievre’s fossilized views on vaccine mandates, and his chummy relationship with that mob in trucks that took over Ottawa for three weeks, make the point. Pierre Poilievre is a one-trick pony.

When Parliament returns, Poilievre will try to use the prime minister as a punching bag. He will do his best to carry his elbows high and perform for those people who like seeing someone giving it to Justin Trudeau, even if the charge is that the PM went on vacation. Poilievre will do his best to fan every flame of grievance into a forest fire. Every question period he will try to provide the water-cooler clip on the national news. Much sizzle if little steak.

Look for two things. If the past is a reliable guide, a lot of times Trudeau won’t be in the chamber, which will leave Poilievre shadowboxing or flailing away at subordinates. When the prime minister is present, he will be well-briefed on the new Conservative leader’s past and able to land a few shots of his own. Pretty hard to defend the Snitch Line, right? Or the laughable Fair Elections Act? And what about Alberta sovereignty?

One certain line of defence for Trudeau is that several of the things that plague Canada are global issues, not matters of domestic policy. No one country controls the supply chain that has been whacked by COVID, just as no country controls the price of gasoline in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Blaming everything on Trudeau will work, but only with people who already think he is the devil incarnate.

What will definitely not work in Canada is the ugly spectacle of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland being verbally assaulted in Alberta by a man who confused gross obscenities with fair comment. Or Pierre Poilievre making insulting and degrading comments about Global News reporter Rachel Gilmore for the high crime of asking pertinent questions about his connections with members of the far right.

Singh’s vulnerability

In a curious way, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh faces the most daunting test when Parliament resumes. Singh took a big risk last March when he entered into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the government that could keep the Liberals in power until June 2025.

Under that arrangement, the NDP caucus will support the government in future confidence votes, as well as supporting the government’s budgets. In return, the Liberals will adopt measures in keeping with key NDP priorities, such as a dental care program for low-income Canadians, starting with 12-year-olds this year. The NDP also expects action on a universal national pharmacare program, a homebuyers’ bill of rights and more targeted action on climate change.

But here is Singh’s vulnerability. There is a scenario under which his alliance with the Liberals yields the square root of bugger all and could, in fact, cost Singh his job. What would the NDP leader do if the Liberals became embroiled in a major scandal sometime during the next three years? If he stuck with the deal under those circumstances, his own caucus might turn on him.

And there is another issue. Should the Liberals respond to the new conservative leader’s attack politics by painting Poilievre as a danger to Canadian democracy, Trudeau could decide to pull the plug and take it to the people. That would leave Singh with nothing to put in the window in a snap election.

The government could set up an election by introducing a series of measures, including accelerated action on gun control, a reaffirmation of the right to abortion and a commitment to a green economy — all things that would get under Poilievre’s skin, but which play well with Canadians. Poilievre has said he is pro-choice on abortion, but he would allow Conservative MPs to bring forward legislation to limit access.

And then there is the hottest issue of all, health care. While some Conservative premiers are raising the possibility of a public-private health-care system, Trudeau could steal the show with a vow to keep Canada’s public health-care system universal no matter what. Would Poilievre advocate a public-private system? Not a winning strategy.

Poilievre and the polls

There has been a good deal of fluffing up Poilievre in the conservative press. But the polling numbers don’t bear out the claim that there is some sort of wave building for this career politician who has actually been around since 2004, four years longer than Justin Trudeau.

Case in point. When the Conservatives had no leader, they enjoyed a five-point lead over the Liberals, according to a Nanos poll. But when Poilievre became the odds on favourite to win the leadership that number dropped to a virtual dead heat.

A recent Ipsos poll found that 21 per cent of Canadians would choose Charest if they could vote for the next Conservative leader, against 16 per cent for Poilievre. But among Conservative party voters, 57 per cent would choose Poilievre, against 38 per cent for Charest.

And according to the latest 338Canada poll, which was updated Sept. 2, if an election were held now the Liberals would get 32.2 per cent of the vote and 144 seats, and the Conservatives would get 31.9 per cent of the vote and 132 seats.

Before Poilievre embraces more populist politics, he should consider one more polling result. The Abacus poll that says 91 per cent of Canadians think that Canada is a better country to live in than the U.S.  [Tyee]

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