Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre rarely questions facts and figures presented by the Liberal government in support of its legislation or other policy initiatives. Instead, he much prefers to question what they are NOT saying, implying there is much relevant data they are hiding because it would damage their case. Sometimes Poilievre and his shadow cabinet MPs ask the prime minister directly what he or one of his ministers is hiding. Sometimes they demand that he “come clean” with Canadians, which amounts to the same thing. In short, the Official Opposition is making it quite clear that they believe very little of what the government tells them and neither should Canadians.
This is hardly a solid basis on which to build citizens’ trust in government, or democracy for that matter. Of course Poilievre is not the first politician to go this route, and it is not just his party that has done so, but he is arguably the worst example of this type of negative attack on facts and truth that we have seen in Canada. And it gets worse. Like Donald Trump in the United States, Poilievre is evidently a fan of what Kellyanne Conway, Mr. Trump’s press secretary, once described as “alternative reality.” This involves arguments that are not “fact-based,” in the usual sense of the term.
Take, for example, the recent efforts by Poilievre and his minions to convince Canadians that Dominic Barton, the former global managing director of international consulting firm McKinsey & Co., is a close personal friend of the prime minister. Despite the fact that Mr. Barton convincingly dispelled this claim in response to Conservative queries in a parliamentary committee hearing, (by noting that he had never met the prime minister before taking on the voluntary job chairing an economic advisory panel for the government, that he has never been alone with Mr. Trudeau in a room, that he does not even have his phone number, and so on), the Conservatives remain committed to this fallacy. And, as several commentators have noted, this is the case despite the fact that there might have been some legitimate avenues of criticism for the Conservatives to pursue concerning the government’s practice of outsourcing. [i]
This is hardly an isolated incident. Nor is it a recent development. Some may remember the patently false claims of the Conservatives during the 2019 federal election that the Liberals were planning to impose a capital gains tax of up to 50% on the sale of principal residences. But how many will recall that Pierre Poilievre was the Finance Critic for Andrew Scheer and an active participant in the preparation of that Conservative election campaign platform? Here too, despite cries of outrage by Liberals and journalists alike at the misleading claim, the Conservative campaign persisted in raising this fictional plan at every opportunity.[ii]
In many cases Poilievre even finds himself in the company of conspiracy theorists, and he does not seem uncomfortable. Take, for example, his ludicrous claim in the House of Commons when he was still Erin O’Toole’s Finance Critic that “global financial elites” were attempting to “re-engineer economies and societies” in order to “empower the elites at the expense of the people.” Canadians “must fight back against global elites” and “their power grab,” by signing a petition calling on the government to “protect our freedom” and “end plans to impose the ‘Great Reset’.”[iii] The Great Reset was, of course, a term used by Davos World Economic Forum organizer Klaus Schwab to promote a social action policy agenda for governments. And this “threat” to Canadians’ freedom, as Poilievre saw it, was made clear in a speech Justin Trudeau delivered at the United Nations, where he stated “This pandemic has provided an opportunity for a reset. This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts, to re-imagine economic systems that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality and climate change.” Poilievre attacked the speech, but conveniently left out all of the words after “economic systems.” Interestingly, Poilievre – who has pledged never to go to Davos — also did not mention that his former boss, Stephen Harper, went several times and actually returned from the 2012 World Economic Forum “vowing that, in the wake of the Great Recession, his government would implement “major transformations to position Canada for growth over the next generation.”[iv]
Then there is Poilievre’s penchant for citing anonymous sources, namely individuals he claims to have encountered who voluntarily approach him and share with him their frustration with the Liberal government. First it was someone called Mustapha, whom Poilievre apparently met in an airport. Mustapha, it seems, was in Ottawa to obtain a passport, having waited for one in vain for ten months in his home city of Calgary. According to Poilievre the poor man had already missed his own scheduled wedding in Cuba, where his wife and all their friends and family were waiting for him. Needless to say many in the media were skeptical about the whole story. A website campaign even emerged asking anyone familiar with “Mustapha” to come forward and identify themselves. [v] (No one did.) More recently an anonymous chef apparently spoke with the Opposition Leader in a grocery store, and complained that he could not afford to purchase the ingredients he used in the restaurant for his own purposes because of the high cost of food. Neither Poilievre nor his staff have been willing to answer any questions about this supposed encounter.
While the Conservative leader is happy to acknowledge the support of these anonymous citizens, he is clearly less willing to give credit to others for material he – or his speechwriters — have conveniently appropriated from them. Many academics and political science students across the country must have been struck by the remarkable similarity, to put it charitably, between a speech Poilievre recently posted and one delivered by New York governor Mario Cuomo at the Democratic Convention in 1984. In a riveting denunciation of the inequalities caused by Republican President Ronald Reagan’s policies, Cuomo declared “There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places you don’t visit in your “shining city”.” Nearly 40 years later, the Conservative leader spoke directly to the prime minister (“Let me tell you Justin”) and warned “There is pain in the faces you do not see, there is suffering in the voices you do not hear and there is distress in the places you do not go.” [vi] (The irony here, of course, is that this type of argument is one that the NDP should have been delivering, rather than a far right populist.)
Perhaps Poilievre’s behaviour will not strike many Canadians as too egregious, particularly when the United States is consistently lowering the bar on truth and fact-based decision-making. From President Trump’s persistent claims that he actually won the 2021 election, and the election of Republican congressman George Santos, whose entire c.v. was a tissue of lies, to the widespread acceptance of Fox News and other “alternative” media to replace “fake news”, American democracy is clearly in trouble. Canada is obviously not in such a sorry state, but we ignore Pierre Poilievre’s duplicitous behaviour at our peril. If this is the only way he can win, what can we expect if and when he succeeds?
[i] Campbell Clark. “In sea of contracting problems, the Tories only dream of their whale.” Globe and Mail. Feb 2, 2023.
[iii] Aaron Wherry. “The Great Reset Reads Like a Globalist Plot” CBC News. Nov. 27, 2020.
[vi] The author was not the only one to be struck by this remarkable similarity, as well-known journalist Gary Mason demonstrated. See the article above.