Pierre Poilievre’s leadership bid marks a toxic turn for Canada’s Conservatives

The pieces seem to be quickly falling into place for a coronation, but is the nasty Trump knock-off really the answer to unite a broken Conservative party?

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      Peggy Nash remembers Pierre Poilievre from when they shared the top floor of the Commons building and his office was down the hall. Nash was in the NDP benches back then and Stephen Harper was prime minister.

      “He was very friendly, as people are when they’re not performing,” says the former MP.  “But clearly, he’s honed his political rhetoric.” Well, that’s one way to describe Poilievre’s penchant for getting under people’s skin and being as nasty as he wants to be. He’s good at it.

      But now that he’s announced his intentions to replace the recently excommunicated Erin O’Toole as Conservative party leader, and promised to make Canadians “the freest people in the world,” the prospects of Poilievre taking over signals a hard right turn for the party. Indeed, the pieces seem to be falling quickly into place for a coronation given how decisively O’Toole was dispatched.

      The Ottawa MP would have run for party leadership last time if it weren’t for “family obligations.” Those no longer seem to apply.

      Poilievre is a true believer, another of the young turks from Calgary incubated in Harper-era Reform circles who first got elected in 2004 at the early age of 25 and qualified for a full MPs pension by the time he was 31. I only mention this to provide some context to the “corporate giants” and “government authorities” that have become popular fodder of Poilievre’s “smaller government is better government” bombast.

      It’s also to point out that Poilievre has been around long enough to have learned a few tricks from the aforementioned Harper and current Alberta premier Jason Kenney, for whom he interned back in the day. He’s a chip off the old block when it comes to the toxic repartee seemingly favoured by the CPC faithful these days.

      Indeed, his candidacy has prompted even conservative columnists to offer the view that the Conservative party has gone to hell in a handbasket. In a video released Saturday to announce his bid “to be Prime Minister of Canada,” Poilievre seemed to be hitching his wagon to the motley crew of anti-vaxxers and anti-government types that have been laying siege to Ottawa as part of the so-called “Freedom Convoy.” It’s not clear if the selection of books on the shelf behind him were intended to impart a subliminal message to those watching, but Orwell’s 1984 and selections on Caesar and Reagan were clearly visible.

      Poilievre’s reputation precedes him. He was closely identified with the social conservative wing of the party early in his political career. That he has found himself in the past on the wrong side of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights compared to most Canadians—and then flip-flopped—is a matter of public record. His views on abortion have been similarly changeable. Whether that’s a good thing for the party’s electoral prospects in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal – all areas the Conservatives failed to win in the last election – is up for party members to decide, if it ever gets to that point for Poilievre. But his stock in trade is austerity.

      Nash, however, suggests there may still be a progressive soul worth saving in the party. She notes that the folks laying siege to Ottawa “are not a majoritarian movement”. To be sure, Jean Charest and Peter MacKay have both been mentioned as possible contenders. So has Navigator principal and National Post columnist Tasha Kheiriddin. Former PC party leader and current Brampton mayor Patrick Brown is another name that’s being kicked around. All straddle the centre-right of the conservative political spectrum.

      Rather than signalling the Trumpification of the CPC, Nash is of the view that Poilievre’s coronation is not so assured.  She argues that for most Conservative MPs the problem with O’Toole was not so much his stand on policies but how changes seemed to be made on the fly without consultation. MPs complained about feeling isolated from the leader’s office.

      “The real question” for Poilievre, says Nash, “is can he unite the party. That will be a priority for the future leader.”

      Ah yes, there is the actual job of leading. It’s something worth considering.

      The vote to oust O’Toole wasn’t close by any means. But there were still some 35 of the party’s 119 MPs who voted to keep O’Toole as leader. What happens to them should Poilievre become the leader? Will they feel welcome in CPC ranks? Or will they be casualties in a So-Con takeover of the party as is happening with the Republicans in the United States?

      Not all MPs embraced Poilievre’s support of the protestors in Ottawa. Some, like Michael Chong, another former leadership candidate, stood in the Commons during Monday’s emergency debate to condemn the protestors’ actions. He was among half a dozen to publicly proclaim their opposition to the protest. Not that any of the protestors were listening, but Chong offered a not-so-short lesson on Charter rights, in particular how protestors have a fundamental right to express their opinions, but not blockade streets—or major trade routes like the Ambassador Bridge, which has now become a target of the convoy that was supposed to be inspired by vaccine mandates affecting supply chains.

      At this point, it’s clear that the Freedom Convoy was more a delusional attempt to overthrow the current government. And despite public sympathy for lifting COVID restrictions, foreign funding for the effort (including from the Trump Organization) is creating its own blowback for Poilievre’s leadership prospects.

      According to Angus Reid’s latest poll released on Wednesday, four in five Canadians fear that the domestic turmoil in the U.S. over vaccines and vaccine mandates spells trouble for Canada’s economy and national security. Seven in 10 Canadians don’t believe the U.S. can survive another Trump term as president.

      Those are daunting numbers for people like Poilievre who want to turn the Conservative party into the Republican party of Canada.

      Chong suggested during his speech in the House on Monday that it was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “rhetoric” that has led to the “divisions” spilling out in front of Parliament Hill.

      If there’s one thing all Conservatives can agree on it’s their dislike—no, distaste—for Trudeau. It’s been the one constant in the innerparty turmoil.


      Updated on February 10 at 3:28 p.m.: An earlier version of this story suggested Poilievre opposes same-sex marriage. He voted against legalizing same-sex marriages in 2005 but has since described gay marriage as “a great success”.