Pierre Poilievre: Populist takes helm of Canada’s Conservatives

Pierre Poilievre, hyper-partisan MP known for anti-Trudeau rhetoric, takes party helm after series of electoral defeats.

Pierre Poilievre
Pierre Poilievre's rise to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada reflects rightward shift of the country's main opposition party and embrace of right-wing populist rhetoric, experts say [Blair Gable/Reuters]

Montreal, Canada – Canada’s federal Conservative Party has chosen a populist career politician to be its next leader, betting on Pierre Poilievre to take on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s Liberals after a series of electoral defeats.

Poilievre’s victory was a foregone conclusion for months, as most opinion polls ahead of the party convention on Saturday night showed his firebrand political rhetoric resonated with members – and gave him a comfortable lead over his closest rival, the more centrist Jean Charest.

“This is not my victory, it is yours,” Poilievre told the crowd from the convention stage in the capital, Ottawa, after his overwhelming win was announced. He garnered 68 percent support on a first ballot, compared to 16 percent for Charest.

“Tonight begins the journey to replace an old government that costs you more and delivers you less, with a new government that puts you first – your paycheque, your retirement, your home, your country,” he said.

Pierre Poilievre and his wife celebrate his victory as the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada
Poilievre celebrates next to his wife Anaida after being elected as the new leader of Canada’s Conservative Party [Blair Gable/Reuters]

Experts say the longtime politician’s rise signals the rightward shift of Canada’s main opposition party and its embrace of right-wing, populist discourse, which has been gaining support in the country as well as around the world.

While many question whether Poilievre’s embrace among conservatives will transfer over to the wider Canadian electorate – or translate into victory against the Liberals, who have been in government since 2015 – his effect on the political landscape in Canada is already being felt.

“His ascendance … does indicate for us that the membership of the Conservative Party has clearly moved in a right-wing direction and is now more receptive to that kind of populist message that he has perfected,” said Jim Bickerton, a political science professor at St Francis Xavier University.

Bickerton described Poilievre as a highly provocative libertarian and “probably the most right-wing” leader of a main political party that Canada has ever seen.

“[He] uses the populist language that we associate with American politics, particularly with the Republican base in the United States, around personal freedom and liberty and opposition to any restrictions on that imposed by government,” he told Al Jazeera.

Career politician

First elected to the House of Commons in 2004, Poilievre has represented Ottawa-area electoral districts ever since. He held the democratic reform, and employment and social development portfolios in the cabinet of longtime Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in government from 2006 until the party lost to the Liberals in 2015.

Those appointments came after Poilievre gained a reputation as what one Canadian columnist recently dubbed “Harper’s personal attack chihuahua”.

At the time, Poilievre made a name for himself as a right-wing hardliner and drew the ire of opposition lawmakers and political observers for his inflammatory and hyper-partisan rhetoric in parliament. In 2013, the left-leaning New Democrats said his rise demonstrated that “to become a minister for Stephen Harper, you must leave the truth behind and embrace mean-spirited attacks.”

More recently, Poilievre has focused much of his campaign for the Conservative leadership on defending personal liberties and “freedom”.

He has attacked Trudeau for increases in the cost of living; slammed the Liberal government for imposing vaccine mandates and other measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, and said he would sack the head of the Bank of Canada over rising inflation. He backed anti-vaccine protesters who occupied Ottawa for weeks earlier this year and accused “the liberal media” of bias in its coverage of the convoy, which was led by far-right activists.

Pierre Poilievre (left) shakes hands with then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2013
Poilievre (left) served as a minister in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government [File: Chris Wattie/Reuters]

“Poilievre is really a career politician, which is a bit paradoxical for someone who has [this] kind of anti-elite rhetoric,” said Daniel Beland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in Montreal.

“[He is] someone who has really put forward a very strong anti-Trudeau, anti-Liberal rhetoric … [and] someone who doesn’t mince his words. He’s really known for that, he’s been known for that for a long time.”

In June, Poilievre publicly admonished a Canadian journalist who asked his team to explain his support for a man with ties to far-right groups. He also faced questions a few weeks later for shaking the hand of the leader of Diagolon, a Canadian far-right organisation, during a campaign event.

“It is impossible to do a background check on every single person who attends my events,” Poilievre’s campaign told Global News in a statement last month. “As I always have, I denounce racism and anyone who spreads it. I didn’t and don’t know or recognize this particular individual.”

But that was rejected by Barbara Perry, the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, who said Poilievre needs to do much more if he wants to distance himself from such supporters. He has also “played into the vilification” of the media and the Liberal government, Perry said, which in turn emboldens more extreme elements to do the same.

In recent weeks, Canadian women journalists – particularly Black women and women of colour – have faced a barrage of death threats, insults and other online harassment, while politicians have raised concerns over their safety amid verbal attacks and intimidation.

“Even during the convoy, [Poilievre] was not soft-peddling at all. He was not trying to distance himself from the far-right elements that were at the head of that movement. He was very much in the midst of it, so it falls on deaf ears when he tries to claim that these are not his politics,” Perry told Al Jazeera.

“He sees this as playing to the base of the party … He definitely is trying to pull people away from the centre to the right,” said Perry, adding that Poilievre is also trying to bring back voters who ditched the Conservatives in favour of the far-right People’s Party of Canada, led by one-time Conservative leadership candidate and minister Maxime Bernier.

“Because he’s part of the Conservative Party and not a fringe party, that makes him that much more appealing – again to lend [far-right groups] some legitimacy and to lend that messaging legitimacy.”

pierre poilievre during leadership debate
Poilievre takes part in a debate in Ottawa on May 5, 2022 [Blair Gable/Reuters]

‘Poilievre’s party now’

Despite that criticism, last month ex-Prime Minister Harper endorsed Poilievre’s leadership bid, describing him as the party’s “most vocal and effective critic of the Trudeau Liberals” and praising his success in attracting “a new generation” to the Conservatives. In June, Poilievre’s campaign said it had recruited more than 311,000 new party members, Canadian media reported.

“He’s been talking about the issues, especially the economic issues, that matter: slow growth, debt, inflation, lack of job and housing opportunities, and the need to fix the institutions that are failing Canadian families,” Harper said in a video shared on social media. “He’s proposing answers rooted in sound conservative ideas, but ones adapted for today’s realities.”

Poilievre’s campaign did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on his political priorities, as well as recent criticism.

But while Harper’s ability to maintain unity between the progressive and more populist wings of the Conservative Party of Canada – formed in 2003 by the merger of the Progressive Conservative and the Canadian Alliance parties – helped him stay in power for nearly 10 years, bringing conservatives together does not appear to be one of Poilievre’s top priorities. Some say that does not matter.

Harper’s endorsement “made Poilievre the unity candidate – which is to say, it called for the ideological diversity of the party to be subsumed under Poilievre’s libertarian conservatism served with a dollop of populist pastiche. It’s Poilievre’s party now. That’s bad news for conservatives and the country”, Canadian political analyst David Moscrop wrote in The Washington Post newspaper last month.

Lori Turnbull, the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, said Poilievre ultimately “wants to win”. “He is not in this to figure out the existential question of how to bring the party together. He’s not interested in anyone’s version of conservatism other than his own.”

And while previous Conservative leaders have shifted back to the centre after winning the party’s top post in an attempt to take votes from the Liberals in general elections, Turnbull said Poilievre would go “full steam ahead”.

A pivot, if it happens, would be towards being more specific on his ideas: “Because he’s going to be leader of the opposition, he’s going to have to say something in parliament, to ask the prime minister questions, and take up some legislative space that’s not about vague ideas of freedom,” Turnbull told Al Jazeera.

She said she expects Poilievre will try to garner support from working-class Canadians and those who are frustrated by the current political options available to them, as well as capitalise on the anti-Trudeau sentiment that has grown during the pandemic. “I think he’s looking at the successes of other politicians in last five, 10 years who wanted to appeal beyond typical partisan lines,” Turnbull said.

“Nothing would make Pierre Poilievre happier than to defeat Justin Trudeau. That would be like a crowning achievement for him because he viscerally hates him.”

Experts said Poilievre cannot be counted out to win an election for the Conservatives. “Poilievre is a savvy politician. He’s experienced, and he should not be underestimated,” said Beland at McGill University. “We thought [Donald] Trump would not win in 2016 and he found a way to win.”

Source: Al Jazeera