The Silly Season and Populist Pettiness, Poilievre Style

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Thank heavens the silly season is almost over. In the dying days of summer, it seems that even some of the most ridiculous comments by Pierre Poilievre and his motley crew of Trump-light followers are capturing the attention of the media, desperate to report anything at all when so little newsworthy is actually happening.

Take, for example, the over-the-top coverage of the Liberals’ recent caucus retreat in Prince Edward Island. The Conservatives and their hardcore supporters spent most of their time criticizing the location of the Liberal retreat and their dinner menus. “Let them eat lobster” [i] was a popular refrain, hammering the Liberals for eating a traditional island lobster sandwich at a local restaurant. Conservative MP Kyle Seeback wrote “eating lobster and collecting per diems while Canadians can’t pay their mortgages. Breathtakingly out of touch.” [ii]

As the Minister of Small Business and her colleagues in Tourism and Fisheries pointed out, this visit – like all parties’ caucus retreats — was partly intended to highlight local businesses and benefit the local economy. It was also intended to expose MPs and Ministers to the views of Canadians living in the regions of Canada, far away from the Ottawa bubble. (How many times does the opposition also criticize a government for being out of touch with people outside the national capital region????) Of course until recently the Conservatives and the NDP would hold their caucus retreats outside of Ottawa as well, frequently in Quebec, and often in the Maritimes or the West. But now it seems this is a serious political misstep. Poilievre actually held last year’s caucus retreat in Ottawa in the Parliament Buildings, and he thinks the Liberals should do the same. Why waste money travelling? Why not stay in Ottawa year round???

Then we have Mr. Poilievre’s recent party-sponsored video showing him walking down a leafy suburban street and telling us this is where he grew up, in a time when any Canadian in their twenties could buy a house. Seriously? In what universe? According to numerous studies, the average age of a first-time home buyer in Canada has only risen by roughly 4 years, from 32 to 36, in the last 50 years. [iii]  Interestingly, what has changed more significantly is the fact that many of the current crop of buyers are single.

This is not to suggest that there is no housing crisis, but its root causes are many and they have taken decades to develop. Some of the more recent drivers are actually international in origin, far beyond the control of a national government. Yet Mr. Poilievre was unable to restrain himself from once again attacking the prime minister, apparently for being personally responsible for the current housing crisis. Which brings us to the saga of 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of the prime minister.

After nearly two decades of neglect, it may be that the historic home of Canadian prime ministers for more than 75 years is beyond redemption. Certainly many Canadians now believe the astronomical cost of repairs is unacceptable. But this sorry state of affairs was hardly inevitable. The principle culprit was none other than Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, who lived there for a decade but refused to allow any money to be spent on upkeep or repairs.[iv] Instead, he and his populist successors have managed to convince many Canadians that Canada has no need for any kind of official residence for its political leaders. This downward spiral now continues with the Poilievre crowd even criticizing Mr. Trudeau for deciding to live in the guest house on the grounds of Rideau Hall once the National Capital Commission, which manages 24 Sussex, essentially declared it uninhabitable.

When exactly will this pettiness end? Should a Canadian prime minister be expected to live in a modest bungalow in the suburbs? The neighbours would love that. There are many reasons for a country having an official residence for its political leaders. Chief amongst them in this day and age is safety and security. Not many people would appreciate the squadron of police cars, security officials etc. that would be parked outside the bungalow, to say nothing of the search lights and convoys carrying visiting heads of state on a regular basis….

Having an impressive national residence is also an important symbol for any country in the world of international diplomacy. Where else do you entertain and house those visiting heads of state? Can anyone imagine the Americans fretting over the cost of upkeep of the White House? Or the French deciding to abandon the Elysee Palace because it is too old and costly to maintain? The British have 10 Downing Street, and even the South Koreans have their own equivalent, the Blue House. Yet our populist politicians now appear to have convinced many Canadians that this country has no need of any official residence for its political leaders.

Perhaps the most outrageous comments have come, yet again, from Pierre Poilievre, who has accused prime minister Justin Trudeau of living rent-free! On his huge salary! Has no one bothered to note that Mr. Poilievre is living rent-free in Stornoway, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition, an elaborate mansion only minutes away from 24 Sussex in Rockliffe, Ottawa’s elite enclave for the rich and powerful? [v] Surely by his own logic he should abandon this “undeserved” perk as well? He may well be right, though, when he recently declared he will never live at 24 Sussex. But that may not be by choice. To live there you first have to be elected prime minister…..