Canada's new Tory leader offers a different type of libertarian populism
The contours are now set for the next Canadian general election: an electoral duel between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the newly-elected Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, who won his party’s nomination this past weekend with a record-setting margin. Given the way in which Canadians punished Trudeau for his opportunistic election call a year ago, the Liberal Prime Minister is unlikely to pull the stunt again, even though he appears chomping at the bit to go after the new Tory leader, whom he will no doubt smear as a racist extremist.
Is this caricature, or is there more to Poilievre that meets the eye?
Canada has had populist leaders before, but historically this populism has been driven by the persistent feeling of “western alienation” — the continued impression that Canada’s western provinces have lacked control over the federal political agenda (which has been has been largely dominated by the most populated provinces — Ontario and Quebec — in central Canada).
By contrast, Pierre Poilievre is a different sort: his ideology has its roots in a very un-Canadian like libertarianism. A talented, media-friendly politician, who has professed his desire to make Canada “the freest nation on earth”, embracing cryptocurrencies as a way to “take control of money from bankers and politicians”.
His political success has come in part as a result of harnessing and exploiting the anger of millions of Canadians suffering from the rising cost of living, out-of-reach housing prices. Like in the US or UK, Canada’s middle class has shrunk as a percentage of the population between the 1980s and mid-2010s, and research shows that real incomes of the middle slice of Canadian households have stagnated for decades. Poilievre speaks to these “deplorables”, much as Donald Trump addressed the losers of globalisation in his 2016 election campaign.
Most controversially, this past winter, Poilievre embraced the self-styled “freedom convoy” truckers protest that emerged in the wake of the Trudeau government’s increasingly aggressive approach to pandemic mitigation; specifically, Poilievre went against much expert opinion in opposing vaccine mandates and mask mandates. His approach on climate change also runs contrary to much of the prevailing conventional wisdom.
While perceived as outside the political mainstream, it is worth noting that Poilievre is the first party leader, since former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to win his party’s leadership by a decisive margin on the first ballot: of the 417,987 votes cast for Saturday’s leadership election — more than any party election in Canadian history — 68%, or nearly 285,000, were for Poilievre.
If he ultimately is able to become the country’s next PM, Poilievre will do much to change the popular perception of Canada as a mildly centre-Left North American version of Scandinavian style social democracy, which the Trudeau government has assiduously promoted (along with its quasi-coalition partner, the social democratic New Democratic Party).
Trudeau has already signalled his desire to lead his government into the next election and aggressively confront Poilievre’s alternative vision for the country. The risk is that instead of addressing the genuine economic precarity now being experienced by millions of voters who are excited by Poilievre’s vision, the PM risks losing the election, if he simply dismisses the Tory Party leaders’ supporters as hateful racists, much as he did with the trucker’s convoy last winter.
Likewise, the Trudeau government’s refusals to exploit its comparative advantage as a major exporter of natural gas is an act of economic self-sabotage that will create shortages in both energy and food (via fertiliser shortages), as well as exacerbating the problems of carbon emissions as countries such as Germany offset the loss of Russian gas via increased coal production. Canadian voters might well find that the growth and employment opportunities offered by a future Poilievre government to be a powerfully persuasive tool in forcing a change of government. And with that change of government, a very different perception of what it means to be a Canadian.