Poilievre’s Take on Navalny Says it All

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When he learned of the untimely death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised Navalny’s “unparalleled courage” as a champion of democracy and immediately blamed Valdimir Putin, the country’s dictator for life, whom he described as a monster. When president Joe Biden heard the news, he immediately said he was “outraged, but not surprised” by Putin’s actions. Countless leaders of other western democracies swiftly expressed similar outrage and many were quick to accuse Putin of ordering Navalny’s murder.

We have no idea what Canadian Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said when he first learned of Navalny’s tragic demise. After some delay he confined himself to a brief and carefully crafted statement on his social media account. “Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has died in prison. Putin imprisoned Navalny for the act of opposing the regime. Conservatives condemn Putin for this death.”

Could Poilievre possibly have said less? Could that statement possibly have been more impersonal? And this is from a man who is “outraged” about almost everything, from car thefts and housing shortages to vaccine mandates and “woke” educators. What else has he not been outraged about??

There are clearly two reasons for this exceedingly restrained and downright odd response from the Leader of the Official Opposition. The first is his general lack of interest in anything to do with foreign policy. The second is his desperate need to play to his base. How do these two realities come together? Keep in mind that most Canadians do not care very much about foreign policy most of the time, so Poilievre has largely ignored the whole area with impunity. But his base – when they think about foreign issues at all – have views that diverge dramatically from the mainstream. So if he must venture into the foreign policy arena, he has to be very very careful not to upset them, while at the same time not going so far as to alienate the moderate majority. No mean feat. Not surprisingly, he either takes potshots at harmless low hanging fruit or avoids taking a meaningful stand on many important issues of the day.

Most of these marginalized far right Conservatives who form his base, (many of whom are returning to the party from the Peoples Party of Canada because of Poilievre’s extreme positions) are happy to hear him attack the Davos conference, the UN, and wasteful spending on foreign aid. Edging ever closer to Donald Trump’s MAGA crowd in the United States, many of them also think that way too much time, money and effort are being spent on defending far off Ukraine.

Some of these folks are even inclined to think, like Trump and a worrisome number of his Republican supporters, that Vladimir Putin is not such a bad guy. Virtually none of them are worried about the growing threat to democracy posed by right wing autocrats like Victor Orban in Hungary, (a man former prime minister Harper admires), or the potentially imminent collapse of the world order that was so painstakingly established after World War II and brought peace and prosperity to much of the planet.     

Seen in this light, Poilievre’s minimalist commentary on the death of Alexei Navalny can be seen as a logical successor to his rejection of the Ukraine-Canada Free Trade Deal, his constant haranguing on the Chinese interference file, and his bizarre campaign to establish a direct flight from Canada to Amritsar in the Sikh region of India. It also explains his feeble attempts to explain how he would “move towards” NATO’s goal that each member country spend 2% of GDP on Defence, having been put on the spot by the media after he vigorously criticized the Liberals for failing to do so. In the end, not surprisingly, the best he could do was to say yet again that he would gut “wasteful” foreign aid, and eliminate “back-office bureaucracy”, whatever that might be. (Meanwhile experts have concluded his plans would still leave him roughly $20 billion short of NATO’s goal.)    

Perhaps the most important thing we have learned from Pierre Poilievre’s painfully spartan comments about the passing of Alexei Navalny is that virtually everything the Conservative leader does is motivated by a consideration of the political advantages and disadvantages of taking a position, any position, on any important issue of the day. Clearly the word “principled” does not enter into his calculations.