“We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character”
— Final speech of the Democratic President character (played by Michael Douglas) referring to his right-wing populist Republican challenger ( played by Richard Dreyfus) in the superb movie “The American President”
In a fatal move they will almost certainly come to regret, the “new” Conservative Party of Stephen Harper has elected long-serving MP and career politician Pierre Poilievre as their next leader. If members of the party don’t regret it, Canadians definitely will.
There are many similarities between Poilievre and the fictional Bob Rumson and, as in the movie, one of the most significant is that the new Conservative leader, like Rumson, is going to lose the next election. Why? Let me count the ways.
To begin with, Poilievre is a highly divisive figure within the Conservative Party. Having managed to have one serious opponent – Patrick Brown – removed from the contest, (thereby losing the party’s support of more than 100,000 new members in Ontario, representing the so-called ‘ethnic” votes the party desperately needs to attract to win an election) Poilievre spent most of the so-called leadership race denigrating the only other serious contender, former federal Progressive Conservative Party leader and premier of Quebec Jean Charest. He accused Charest of the ultimate heresy, of being a Liberal and not a Conservative at all. This despite the fact that Poilievre knew very well that Charest had only reluctantly left federal politics to lead the Liberal Party of Quebec after desperate pleas from the federalists in that province for him to come home and lead the NO forces in the 1995 referendum. Yet only after Poilievre was crowned leader did he admit this was the case.
No surprise, then, to see that Poilievre has alienated much of his Quebec caucus, almost all of whom were supporting Charest. Some have already indicated they may reconsider their commitment to the party and/or may not run again in the next federal election, something the Conservatives can ill afford if they hope to win.
Then there is Poilievre’s extreme right-of-centre populist take on many issues, several of which are not even considered issues by the moderates in the party. These range from his anti-vaccine and mask mandate stance and his attacks on “gatekeepers” to his bizarre recommendation that Canadians invest in cryptocurrency (something he stopped talking about once that phenomenon began tanking), that he would fire the Governor of the Bank of Canada and that neither he nor any member of his caucus would ever attend the annual World Economic Forum, which every conspiracy theorist knows is run by a cabal of wealthy individuals intent on dominating the world economy and helping Bill Gates to put microchips in vaccines to control the recipients’ brains….Meanwhile his commitment to traditional conservative values, such as law and order, has taken a huge hit as he continues to defend and even promote his relationship with members of the infamous Trucker Convoy, making almost everyone else in the party uncomfortable.
No surprise, then, to learn that former Progressive Conservative prime ministers such as Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark, and other prominent Tories such as Senator Marjorie Lebreton, Hugh Segal and MP Ed Fast, have expressed dismay at the prospect of a Poilievre leadership and stated that they do not recognize the party he apparently now represents, given his massive first ballot victory. Jean Charest was arguably persuaded to run for the leadership for the very purpose of stopping Poilievre, whom he once referred to as “unfit” to lead a political party because of his support for the convoy.
Interestingly, this dismay also extends to those well-known media columnists of conservative persuasion, such as Andrew Coyne, John Ibbitson and John Ivison, to say nothing of the Globe and Mail’s editorial page. Simply put, it would be difficult to identify a single well-known conservative-leaning national media commentator who has been supportive of Poilievre’s candidacy.
Then, of course, there are the views of ordinary Canadians to consider. Poilievre entered the campaign saying that he was running, not to be leader of the party, but to become the next prime minister. He and his team, including Harper pit bull Jenni Byrne, are obviously convinced that he does not need to modify his positions at all in order to do so. No doubt they recall that Erin O’Toole’s attempts to move the party closer to the centre failed badly in the last election, but they seem to have ignored the fact that experts concluded it was because of the disconnect between O’Toole’s hard-right platform during the leadership campaign, and his blatant attempt to disown much of it during the election, that was the cause of their defeat, not his attempt to move the party to the centre per se. And Poilievre is much further out in right field than O’Toole ever was…
Some have suggested that the new leader believes he will recapture all of the votes lost to Maxime Bernier’s PPC with his far right stance, and they may be correct. But it is important to note that even if all of these votes returned to the Conservative fold, it would not be sufficient for the party to win a federal election. And that assumption about recovering PPC votes also rests on the flawed assumption that the party will lose no votes on the other end – the red Tories – because of his extreme positions. This too is very unlikely.
Several opinion polls in the last few weeks have reinforced the argument that a Poilievre-led Conservative Party cannot win the next federal election. To begin with, they have consistently demonstrated that Jean Charest was the preferred choice of voters in general, even though Poilievre was the overwhelming choice of Conservative Party members and deeply committed Conservative voters. Darrell Bricker of IPSOS, for example, reported that a recent poll found one in three Canadians have an unfavourable opinion of Poilievre, and this is most pronounced in Ontario and Quebec, where the party needs to win seats if it hopes to form a government. “With the general population,” Bricker said, “where elections are won or lost, he is not really performing strongly, In fact, his negatives are higher than his positives.”[i]
Even more significant is the fact that fully one-quarter of traditional Conservative voters state they do not know enough about Poilievre to say whether they will support him or not, as do one-third of Canadians in general. If the Liberals have an even remotely competent communications strategy between now and the next election, they will surely make a point of educating Canadians on what Poilievre has said and done up to now, including during the leadership campaign. Chances are, this will not help his case.
Finally, there is the question of a Poilievre platform. To date there has not actually been much in the way of concrete proposals, because he has taken the standard populist route of criticizing the government and railing about perceived problems without ever actually indicating how he would address them. (On other occasions, such as during his acceptance speech, he has offered up vague or untenable solutions, such as his suggestion that he could make municipalities change their zoning bylaws to promote the construction of more affordable housing.) This highly negative approach to politics is in itself an unfamiliar and disturbing trend in Canadian politics which demonstrates why Poilievre has often been referred to as “Trump lite.”
Although there is no way to predict what the issues will be in two to three years, or even who the leaders of the Liberals and NDP will be at that time, it seems all but certain that the Conservative Party under the leadership of Pierre Poilievre is not likely to convince Canadians that it is a viable alternative to the Liberal government in power. Conservatives were told this for the past several months, and they chose to ignore this advice. What they have likely accomplished is to drive moderate conservative voters into the arms of the Liberals, allowing that party to win another election and defy the old adage that ten years is the limit for any party before its best before date is determined by voters.
In short, in Canada the Bob Rumson approach to politics is not the key to success, but a surefire way to lower the tone of political discourse and turn off many voters, further endangering the health of the democratic process. Perhaps Conservatives will come to their senses and find themselves a new, credible leader before the next federal election. They have nearly three years to recognize the error of their ways. Or do they really not care if they ever return to government?
[i] I. Lavery. “Poilievre Popular Among Conservative Voters, But Not All Canadians Feel the Same”. Global News. Sept.5, 2022