Whither the Poilievre Party? Polls vs. Byelections

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Anyone with only a passing interest in Canadian politics might be inclined to think the Poilievre Conservatives are in good shape and poised to win the next federal election. Most public opinion polls, after all, show them with a significant lead over the governing Liberals and within striking distance of a majority. But ‘anyone’ would be wrong. Even the pollsters have said so. The Conservatives “still have more work to do” to win a general election.[i]

That is surely an understatement. The four recent federal byelections demonstrate this paradox perfectly. Yes, the Conservatives held on to their two ridings and the Liberals kept theirs. So status quo, right? No. The results reveal quite a different scenario. Keep in mind that byelections are generally viewed as an opportunity for the opposition to gain seats because of voters’ general discontent with the government of the day or lack of interest. At the very least, one would expect increased support for the Conservatives. Instead, they won one of their two ridings with less of the popular vote than before, and also received less of the vote in the two Liberal ridings than the previous time. This despite the Conservatives’ substantial overall lead in the polls nationally and the constant hammering of the Liberals in parliament over a variety of Conservative-perceived failings. In fact, the Liberals increased their share of the popular vote by roughly 5%.

So what is happening here? An important part of the story is the party’s own internal cleavage between the old progressive Conservatives (so-called red Tories) and the new hard right populists led by Pierre Poilievre. Despite winning the leadership so decisively he has not brought those moderate dissidents back into the fold. Instead, with every step Poilievre takes to the right he alienates more of the party’s old base support. At the same time, Poilievre has doubled down on this move to the far right in the firm belief that he must do so to regain voter support from the Peoples Party of Canada (PPC) which arguably cost the Conservatives seats in the last election.

The vicious fight that took place in the largely rural riding of Portage-Lisgar in Manitoba, where the Conservatives were being challenged in the byelection by none other than PPC leader Maxime Bernier, (who was running as that party’s candidate there), is the perfect example of this schism. Simply put, Poilievre and Co. threw everything but the kitchen sink at Bernier in order to protect their right flank. It worked, but at what cost? While many of the “debates” in that riding were about such ridiculous “issues” as who had or had not ever attended, or would ever attend, a meeting of the World Economic Forum, there were plenty of other hard right positions outlined by the Conservative candidate and by Poilievre himself that did not go unnoticed elsewhere. Certainly Liberals took note and one can assume some of the leader’s statements will come back to haunt him in a general election when the Liberals’  war room goes on the offensive.

In many ways the four recent results are a continuation of the trend that began with the byelection last December in Mississauga Lakeshore, a suburban riding in Ontario where the Liberals’ margin of victory increased from 6% to 14% of the popular vote. And that riding, like the two Liberal ridings in play this time around, are the very kind that the Conservatives need to win if they are to form a government. They simply must take more urban/suburban seats in Ontario and Quebec, rather than merely racking up huge margins in rural and western ridings that skew the national results and leave them on the opposition benches.[ii]  And to do so, they need to move to the centre.

Columnist Andrew Coyne, who himself is located comfortably on the right (but has been hard-pressed to find something positive to say about Poilievre since he was selected leader), had nothing good to say about this strategy. He argued the results of the byelections “suggest the Conservatives lost more votes to the Liberals than they gained from the PPC. Far from luring centrist voters away from the Liberals, the Conservatives have repelled the ones they still had.”[iii]  Other Conservatives took note as well. There is extreme concern in the ranks about the results of these byelections, which they view as a rude shock and wake up call.

This is especially significant since there is already a groundswell of opposition among the party’s old guard and senior statesmen over Poilievre’s reckless and vicious personal attacks on Liberals, bureaucrats, current and former governors- general, the Governor of the Bank of Canada and virtually anyone else whom he feels he can target and berate as a “gatekeeper.”

Yet this public discontent among the party faithful is getting increasingly common. As well-regarded former Conservative adviser Tim Powers wrote recently, the opposition’s role is to criticize, but not to be “nasty.” He then went on to outline his objection to Poilievre’s complete disregard for decorum, convention and civil behaviour in a telling piece that would have given almost anyone else pause. Poilievre, however, probably saw it as a “badge of honour” as Powers predicted.[v] This was quickly followed by a lengthy OpEd by former Harper Communications Director Andrew Macdougall, who described Poilievre’s performance in the House of Commons one day as based entirely on“salacious rumours with a side of snark.” He went further. He argued “in Poilievre’s digital politics, facts don’t matter, but scoring points does,” and then sadly concluded “the new laws of digital politics are a disgrace, but they’re an effective disgrace.”[vi] Meanwhile, as Liberal pundit Greg Maceachern pointed out on a recent Power and Politics panel, his Conservative counterparts on various political panels seemed highly uncomfortable with the rhetoric Poilievre was using about Johnston and none, to his knowledge, agreed with the Leader’s characterization of Johnston or went along with his line of attack in their own comments.

Academics have been decrying this unseemly behaviour and its negative impact on citizens’ trust in democratic institutions for some time. (As renowned political scientist Nelson Wiseman recently wrote,“In one sense, Trump’s “swamp” has come to Parliament Hill in the form of the extraordinary partisan polarization that has engulfed it. David Johnston, an honourable man who has been treated dishonourably, is its most noteworthy casualty.”[iv]) But academics are outside observers. It takes a great deal more in the way of motivation or dismay for old party warhorses to publicly disagree with their leadership in public, and nowhere more so these days than in the new Conservative Party. This is partly because most of the rank and file have learned their lesson about making internal divisions public from earlier PR disasters, and partly because Poilievre (and his enforcer Jenni Byrne) are known to be highly vindictive.

But surely the best example of this ongoing schism was delivered by none other than former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.  Speaking at the Atlantic Economic Forum last week in Antigonish, Mr. Mulroney took indirect aim at Poilievre by decrying “the trivia and trash of rumours and gossip floating around the Hill” before devoting much of his time to effusive praise of prime minister Justin Trudeau’s record of accomplishments, including the handling of the pandemic and the re-negotiation of the NAFTA agreement while Donald Trump was president. Mr. Trudeau, in response, referred to Mulroney’s creation of the Atlantic Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and the need for other politicians to follow Mulroney’s lead and “build up rather than tear down.” As columnist Lawrence Martin noted, Mulroney may not have much influence with what is left of his party, but Canadians undoubtedly enjoyed the respite from partisan bickering and negative politics. [vii] Moreover, Mulroney at least has the advantage, unlike Poilievre, of having won two back to back majorities.

Put another way, the current polls may well be misleading. Pierre Poilievre has taken the party farther away from the centre than any Conservative leader has ever done before in Canada. The byelection results suggest that, faced with a choice between somewhat left-of-centre, positive Liberals and very far right, negative Conservatives, many Canadian voters will choose the former every time, even if reluctantly.

[i] See for example https://www.hilltimes.com/story/2023/06/20/byelection-results-show-tories-still-have-work-to-do-to-win-general-election-says-pollster-greg-lyle/390886/   and https://www.hilltimes.com/story/2023/05/17/pollsters-say-poilievre-leadership-kicked-conservative-fundraising-juggernaut-into-overdrive-but-dont-discount-liberals/387310/

[ii] Although not relevant to this piece, it is instructive to note that Poilievre also has the highest disapproval rating of any federal leader in Quebec, suggesting the Bloc will continue to provide the major opposition to the Liberals in that province.

[iii] A. Coyne. “The Conservatives Protect their Right Flank at the Cost of Losing the Centre.” Globe and Mail. June 21, 2023.

[iv] See for example this seminal piece by renowned political scientist Nelson Wiseman. https://www.hilltimes.com/story/2023/06/21/the-fallout-from-the-david-johnston-debacle/390791/

[v] https://www.hilltimes.com/story/2023/05/24/criticism-is-essential-to-politics-nastiness-isnt/387969/

[vi] A. Macdougall. “Salacious Rumours with a Side of Snark.” Ottawa Citizen. June 9, 2023.

[vii] L. Martin. “Brian Mulroney and Justin Trudeau: A Liberal-Conservative Love-In Like no Other”, Globe and Mail. June 22, 2023.