David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Pierre Poilievre, Populist Politician?

Brandon Sun, October 24, 2022 – David McConkey


That’s quite the new leader of His Majesty's Loyal Opposition, eh? Pierre Poilievre is a radical break from the conservative past in Canadian politics and deserves our attention right now.

Is Poilievre the Canadian version of Donald Trump and other new conservative populists on the world stage? The answer is complicated. Mainly because of the difficulty trying to figure out what the heck is meant by the terms “conservative” or “populist”!

Look (if you dare) at Trumpian Republicans in the U.S. or Conservatives in the U.K. Like, is populist conservatism just a cluster of clowns creating chaos? Whatever.

In several ways Poilievre does not fit the mould of a new populist. For one, Poilievre is not new. He was a cabinet minister in the Stephen Harper government and he has been a member of parliament for almost 20 years. For another, he is not your stereotypical reactionary. He is at ease with the non-traditional family, he is pro-choice, he is pro-immigration.

As commentator Rahim Mohamed notes in the Canadian internet publication, The Line, Poilievre’s 21st century views and telegenic family make for a formidable political force.

“No major federal party leader has ever had a family that looks more like Canada,” Mohamed writes about Poilievre. “He has a South American wife, an adoptive father who is in a relationship with another man, and a biological mother who’s young enough to be his sister – Pierre Poilievre is basically a character from the hit sitcom ‘Modern Family’.”

But in other ways, Poilievre channels some disturbing elements of the new populism. Take this year’s truckers’ convoy. Please!

Perhaps I look at the past through rose-coloured glasses. But I imagine former prime ministers handling the truckers' protest better than today’s leaders did.

In my mind, Stephen Harper or Jean Chrétien or Brian Mulroney would have employed nuance. They would have had a representative meet with the truckers. They would have sympathized with the frustration felt by many over pandemic mandates. But those prime ministers would have criticized the illegalities of the protest. And they would have deftly deflected away problematic aspects of the protest: conspiracy theories and other nutty ideas.

But cool competence and calm nuance is lacking today on all sides of the Canadian political spectrum. Political leaders – like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh – did not skillfully meet the convoy challenge. Those leaders either dithered or vilified the truckers.

Poilievre was worse. He immediately endorsed the convoy. By impulsively backing the protest, Poilievre was cozying up to conspiracy theories and encouraging societal chaos.

In his ongoing rhetoric, Poilievre amplifies simmering outrage into a wide-ranging attack of “elites” and “gatekeepers.” As prime minister, Poilievre would supposedly overthrow these mysterious entities to free the common people. This is not a conservative, reasoned approach. Instead, this is a radical, emotional outlet for a population weighed down with frustrations, grievances and conspiracy theories.

And Poilievre encourages social division by trolling those who might be in disagreement. Even if Poilievre becomes P.M., you can expect to see his continuing sneering contempt. For fun he will enjoy teasing out “leftist tears.”

Let’s pause and consider how much Poilievre is a break from the conservative tradition of Harper or Mulroney. The closest Canadian comparison that comes to my mind is the John Diefenbaker government of 1957 to 1963. Journalist Peter C. Newman analyzed the Diefenbaker years in his book, “Renegade in Power.”

The next federal election will be fascinating. A Poilievre – Trudeau matchup will be a rare contest between two experienced, charismatic politicians. In a normal election, only one leader exudes charisma, the other presents a more bland alternative. This time, get ready for a donnybrook!

I can see the election going one of two ways. In the first scenario, so many NDP and Green voters are frightened of Poilievre they rush to support the Liberals and the Trudeau government survives. In the second scenario, enough voters are exhausted by the Trudeau Liberals that they give Poilievre a chance.

That second scenario would be a classic Canadian political formula. Begin with Liberal hubris. Add a brief Conservative interlude. Then go back to the Natural Governing Party – or, as it is sometimes called: the Liberal Party.

Poilievre could be the new Diefenbaker. “Dief the Chief” rode to power on the people’s disgust with Liberal arrogance. After a few years of Conservative turmoil, the populace returned in relief to Liberal quietude. Except for the months of the Joe Clark interregnum, the Liberals governed for 20 years.

Can’t we do any better? Just asking, as a citizen.

* * * *
See also: 

Can We Know What Is Morally Right?

Reflecting on Trudeau, Leadership and Wisdom

Why Do Good People Fall for Bad Ideas?

Time to Awaken Our Inner Patriot

Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Be a Harper Voter!

Which One is the Head of State Again?

 

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