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How to Defeat Poilievre’s Politics of Abandonment

Take every chance to debunk these six false promises destined to make most Canadians worse off.

Jonathan Sas 8 Sep 2023The Tyee

Jonathan Sas has worked in senior policy and political roles in government, think tanks and the labour movement. He is a co-author of Seeking Social Democracy: Seven Decades in the Fight for Equality, out this fall.

In Pierre Poilievre, Canada has a radical free market zealot whose policies will be disastrous for the poor, working and middle classes.

Indeed, if the Conservatives are victorious in the next election, Poilievre will be the most right-wing prime minister in our modern history. Think the gutting of social welfare from the Paul Martin budgets of the early 1990s meets a supercharged dismantling of the fiscal capacity of government à la Stephen Harper.

Poilievre, to the credit of his communications team, has managed to dress up his right-wing program with populist rhetoric that resonates during a time of rising economic insecurity. But scratch the surface and the neoliberal playbook of slashing social spending, tax cuts for business and the wealthy, and abandoning people to market inequities is plain to see.

All of this provides plenty of potent talking points for those who oppose Poilievre’s bid to lead the Conservatives into power in the next election.

So here’s a memo to progressives who prefer to frame the contest as one based on likeability. Poilievre’s personality is flawed by a petty mean streak, we’re told. Voters just don’t feel warmly towards the cold fish. He knows it and that explains his latest ads projecting a friendly family guy. What if his PR blitz makes the public forget he’s a jerk?

Who cares and so what?

To counter Poilievre’s growing appeal, voices on the left must spend less effort parsing the candidate’s projected personality. Instead, challenge the Poilievre doctrine, piece by piece. Focus on the veteran politician’s ideology and program and demonstrate how it will materially worsen the well-being of ordinary Canadians.

In many ways, exposing Poilievre’s dangerous political agenda should be easy. When Harper took the helm of the Conservative party, he too was a known ideologue. And yet he combatted a narrative, even while governing, that he had a “hidden” right-wing agenda.

One cannot accuse Poilievre of the same. He has been remarkably consistent about his political beliefs and right-libertarian definition of freedom throughout his nearly two decades of public life. A rabid partisan throughout his time in the House of Commons, he ran unabashedly on the right in the party leadership contest and hasn’t pivoted since.

Here are some of the key claims he is making, already in campaign mode for the next federal election, and what voters need to hear.

Poilievre’s false ‘freedom’

For Poilievre freedom itself is conceived in opposition to government. True to the spirit of one of his intellectual heroes, the economist Friedrich Hayek, it boils down to the ability to make individual choices unimpeded in the free market. The profit motive is what drives efficiency, no matter what “good” is being considered. Privatization then — whether in health or seniors care, housing, child care or transit — is the solution to the rising costs of living.

The individual trumps the collective, competition trumps co-operation, private interests are king. Never mind that unregulated capitalism traps many in lives robbed of freedoms from want and drudgery.

This conception of freedom rests on a common myth about success and merit — that one’s ability to succeed and thrive depends on hard work and initiative, not on social location, means, identity or status. As the conservative thought leader and editor of the Hub Sean Speer has pointed out, for Poilievre the goal of conservatism is not to close the gap between rich and poor, but to expand social mobility.

Poilievre’s faulty formula for ‘social mobility’

Pitting priorities of social mobility and equality against each other wasn’t always a mantra for Canadian conservatives, of course. Former Conservative senator Hugh Segal’s recent passing reminded us that not long ago one could encounter a strong Tory tradition that looked beyond the market. It pursued a common purpose and could conceive of taking certain social goods like health care, decent work and pensions out of the market as rights of citizenship.

Much of that tradition was snuffed out in Canada during the Harper era. And while market fundamentalism has been waning on the political right across the West — as racist and nativist appeals to protecting the welfare state (for white populations) have ascended — Poilievre remains a fervent free marketeer, albeit one willing to stoke white nationalism for political advantage.

But folks on the left should directly challenge Poilievre’s facile formula for social mobility. It’s easy enough to poke holes in Poilievre’s assumption that inequality is an inevitable feature of a system where some work harder than others and take initiative to climb the social ladder. This meritocratic narrative promotes personal responsibility while cloaking structural and systemic factors that erode or break the ladder for some and not others (whether, for example, due to racial or gender discrimination, or poverty, or other power dynamics that affect social location and stratification).

Actually, for most ordinary Canadians, it is precisely the government-funded infrastructure of support that Poilievre bashes that enable them the freedom to flourish individually and pursue things outside of simply “working hard.” Publicly funded and universally accessible health care and other social services, access to public space and affordable public transit, affordable housing, a national broadcaster that counters disinformation with actual journalism — all of these promote greater equality and quality of life, something we should be reminding voters of over and over again. But for Poilievre, these programs distort the market, create inefficiencies and ought to be delivered, for-profit, by the private sector.

No voter is likely to be against a society that provides social mobility. Here, though, it’s important to lay bare how simplistic and wrong Poilievre’s formula for achieving more of it is. Voters should be reminded, again and again, that reams of evidence across the globe show higher inequality translates into less social mobility. Merit, it turns out, faces sticky power asymmetries Poilievre would have us ignore — kids from poorer backgrounds are most likely to become poor adults, rich kids to become rich adults. As Canadian economist Miles Corak has succinctly put it, “inequality erodes opportunity, and limited opportunity exacerbates inequality.”

Poilievre’s ‘let charity do it’ cop out

Poilievre’s attitude toward social spending was best captured when he told journalist Shannon Proudfoot last year that he has “always believed that it is voluntary generosity among family and community that is the greatest social safety net that we can ever have.” What Poilievre hopes Canadians will forget in his appeal to charity over a citizen’s right, and societal duty to provide certain social rights, is that inequality exploded in this country precisely when social spending and redistributive programs were gutted.

Poilievre’s restricted ‘rights’

Rights for Poilievre are limited to the sphere of the civil and political — things like the right to vote, freedom of assembly, religion, association and speech (for some). Social and economic rights on the other hand — rights to health care, pensions, housing, decent work, to say little of Indigenous and other group rights — are not viewed as rights at all but rather aspirations, and misguided ones at that.

Poilievre’s ‘populist’ mirage

Poilievre, of course, is not foolish enough to lead with what he intends to privatize and leave to the vagaries of the market. Instead, he is highlighting very real affordability challenges and emphasizing government as the barrier to people getting ahead.

His now familiar script goes like this. There is great dignity in working hard to provide for one’s family. But hard work doesn’t pay off anymore. The cost of everything is out of control due to “inflationary deficits” and an imposing government that cuts into your paycheque with excessive taxes.

Who’s to blame?

Poilievre has homed in on “gatekeepers” as his label of choice for elites that are keeping down working class people. At times this refers to bureaucrats, elected politicians and even central bankers. What matters is that the villain in the story is government interference. Gatekeepers are responsible for making the cost of living greater, whether that’s the cost of housing (through zoning regulations and red tape), interest rates (central bank rate hikes and government deficits) or fuel (the carbon tax).

What is more telling is who Poilievre does not blame: Corporate price gouging as multimillion-dollar executive bonuses are prioritized over raising worker wages. Exploitative employers resisting unionization efforts. Rapacious landlords and the financial speculation distorting housing. Nary a mention of anything that could threaten profit margins.

While Poilievre’s story may be misleading about the culprits for today’s economic misery, he is tapping into genuine fear and insecurity; and into a sense that the elite causing this loss of control in our lives is not only disconnected from the people struggling, but judgemental of how they make their living. (As Poilievre puts it, a government that “sneers at them, looks down on them and tells them how to run their lives.”)

Poilievre dangerously plays to fears about the pace of change and changing social norms. This sense of being judged and under attack animates much of the discourse across Canada’s political right and is prominent in the organizing of Canada’s emboldened far-right white supremacist groups. Whether it is opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, bigoted hysteria over trans rights and gender pronouns, or vehement denial of Canada’s dispossession and genocide of Indigenous people, this potent mix of culture war fodder is marshalled together with Poilievre’s gatekeeper narrative and is leading to massive campaign rallies and ballooning poll numbers.

Poilievre’s tax cuts for fattening wealthy ‘paycheques’

Voices on the left must expose Poilievre’s narrative for what it is — a clever sleight of hand that will ultimately exacerbate inequality and hurt the working class. That means taking aim directly at what he proposes to do.

While Poilievre has released little detailed policy, he has been crystal clear about two things: he intends to slash government spending and aggressively cut taxes so people can “bring home bigger paycheques.”

How will he grow paycheques? By cutting Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance premiums, a perennial demand of the business community. It’s a conjurer’s trick. Businesses will save money, sure; but any minimal savings for workers will be dwarfed by reductions to their pensions, and inadequate income insurance should they lose their job.

We can also expect Poilievre to pick up where Stephen Harper left off. Not just corporate and income tax cuts, but boutique tax credits that help higher income earners more. Poilievre was a vocal supporter of income splitting, a costly tax gift to traditional families with one breadwinner and a stay at home spouse. How many working-class families would benefit from that? Unsurprisingly, Conservatives are set to debate eliminating all tax on capital gains (that is, income earned from investments) at their upcoming convention. How about that for understanding the affordability challenges of the ordinary Canadians.

There is another point to all these costly tax cuts. Starving the treasury to justify social spending and public service cuts and ultimately to reduce the capacity of any future government to respond to challenges.

We know it is lower-income people that get the most value out of public services. And they stand to lose the most from the gutting of government and the social state.

Taken together, Poilievre’s program represents a politics of abandonment: Cut CPP and abandon people to retirement insecurity. Cut EI and abandon people to poverty in unemployment. Cut taxes and starve the state at the moment resources are most needed to meet the crises in housing, in our care systems and to combat a warming climate.

It’s easy to get pulled into Poilievre’s nasty political style. Those who oppose him on the left would do better, in the coming months, to name his program of abandonment and explain its fatal flaws. And then connect working people’s very real private struggles to the collective solutions that will materially improve their lives as well as their neighbours.  [Tyee]

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