Small government, ‘big citizens’: Poilievre opens his tenure

By Palak Mangat September 13, 2022

New Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is well-positioned to hammer the government on its economic agenda heading into the fall sitting, say some party insiders, but other experts predict it is only a matter of time until the Tories’ social conservative faction rears its head.

Poilievre’s decisive weekend victory came after the Carleton MP’s focus throughout the campaign remained on Covid measures, pandemic fallout and concerns about central agencies and institutions, said Jake Enwright, vice-president of public affairs at Syntax Strategic.

A former aide to then-leader Erin O’Toole, Enwright predicted warnings from Quebec Tories like MP Joël Godin that a Poilievre victory could force him to reconsider his future with the party are not phasing the new head honcho.

“His campaign in no way would have disillusioned progressive conservatives. In fact, the major fault lines between progressives and other conservatives really weren’t talked about a whole lot in his campaign,” Enwright told Parliament Today.

(Following Poilievre’s victory, Godin told Quebec radio station 98.5 FM he was “comfortable” with the outcome and that “the goal is to have a united party.”)

Instead, Poilievre is likely to continue hammering his messaging to the “left behinds” — a voter bloc that was identified in 2020 as among three groups of Canadians that O’Toole should appeal to during a general election to pick up more support.

New Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, his partner Anaida and son Cruz pose for photos before Poilievre’s first address to caucus as party captain on Monday. (Facebook/Pierre Poilievre)

The group is made up of those financially worse off and less educated, who feel they have not benefited from the country’s economic growth. “They are people who believe the government is not working for them anymore,” with fiscal woes exacerbated by the pandemic, explained Enwright.

Poilievre, now tasked with spearheading a game plan to build a winning national coalition, appears to be aggressively pursuing that cohort. In his first comments to caucus Monday, he framed himself as an ally to the average Canadian.

Dubbing the NDP-Liberal confidence-and-supply agreement a “radical woke coalition,” Poilievre vowed to fight “tooth and nail” against any tax increases. A small government will make “big citizens” and ensure the state is the servant and the people are its “masters,” he added. (The captain was joined by his partner Anaida and son Cruz on stage to mark the little one’s first birthday, with the trio posing for photos as they cut a cake.)

According to the ex-O’Toole staffer, the leadership contest was dominated by candidates pitching themselves as best-positioned to pick up more seats in a general vote — a departure from the typical scenario, where the traditional “fault lines” have dealt with the party’s “core beliefs.” In previous races, that’s brought fissures to the fore by highlighting differences in social conservative issues.

But the Grits could try to “force issues that will wedge into those traditional fault lines,” warned Enwright.

He wondered if the government will look to “entrench the right to accessing abortion into law” in the early days of Poilievre’s tenure to bolster the Liberal offensive against the new captain. (During the race, Poilievre vowed that a government under his helm would never introduce or pass a law banning abortions, acknowledging at the French debate that he is “pro-choice.” That’s since ruffled the feathers of Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion socially conservative group who said it would not endorse him because he is “pro-abortion.”)

Poilievre is already facing calls from the group to fold rookie MP Leslyn Lewis into his roster of critics. Earning nine per cent of the vote in the contest, Lewis was the de-facto social conservative voice in the race. He’s also being dubbed a “disaster for working people in Canada” by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which decried he is a career politician making the party a “cozier place for far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists.”

To Melanie Paradis, president of Texture Communications and a veteran Tory campaigner, Poilievre is a “social moderate” and “fiscal idealogue” ready to go head-to-head with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “solely on the economy.”

She brushed aside suggestions he will “pivot” the party or his brash style of politics amid a general election. (Paradis worked on O’Toole’s successful 2020 leadership bid and went on to join his opposition leader’s office. The Durham MP’s tenure was plagued by infighting amid his unsuccessful pivot as a “true blue” Tory to the centre during last fall’s campaign.)

She commended the new leader for focusing on meeting electors where they are.

“He cares more about the size, capability and cost of government,” which should “stop doing things that it can’t do, stop trying to do new things it does not currently do, and just do the things it can, better,” she added. “Canadians either are where he is already, or they will be as interest rates climb and people worry more and more about being able to pay their mortgage.”

The PM wasted no time launching an offensive against his newest opponent. Congratulating Poilievre on the triumph, Trudeau warned yesterday that “buzzwords, dog whistles and careless attacks don’t add up to a plan for Canadians.”

Inevitable ‘blow up’?

Liberal organizer Penny Collenette, who worked in Jean Chrétien’s PMO, said it remains to be seen whether Poilievre will embrace a “soft-shoe shuffle back to the centre” after his big win.

“Traditionally, you’d expect a leader who has been pretty hardcore and aggressive to do that pivot … but these are not traditional times,” she said. “I don’t know if some of the things we all thought were the model will still work.”

She echoed that much of the discourse on the federal scene is centered on the economy right now — the “bread and butter” topics voters pay attention to. But “there’s an ominous silence on some of [the social conservative issues],” which will “have to blow up” at one point — though it remains unclear when.

Poilievre’s ascension comes as many voters, including Liberal partisans, appear “disillusioned” with Ottawa, said Amanda Bittner, a political scientist with Memorial University. That provides an opening for the new Tory captain.

But while his “campaign style is well-suited to playing to the emotions and anxieties of voters, whether that is enough to win him an election is not obvious,” Bittner added. That means he will need to go beyond vocalizing calls for unity, and show through his platform and policy pitches that he can “cast his net widely across the political spectrum to obtain broad support.”

For his part, Poilievre hit the ground running.

Per the Toronto Star, he notified members of the Conservative Fund of Canada on Sunday that they are being replaced. That included James Dodds, an O’Toole ally who headed up the fundraising arm of the CPC.

Yesterday, he popped into a gathering of the Quebec Tory caucus, a group that largely supported his second-place rival Jean Charest in the contest. Charest has since signalled he will retreat to the private sector, but remain a card-carrying member of the CPC. That means Poilievre can warm up to the provincial Tories without a “distraction,” said Collenette.

She predicted his first test will come when he names critic portfolios, though the Tories, unlike other parties, also allow their Senate colleagues to sit in during caucus meetings. Upper chamber reps, who are more likely to speak out, can be a “different breed,” she added, so Poilievre will have the added challenge of managing that squad.

Breaking bread vital, says ex-OLO aide

Enwright said his time in O’Toole’s office highlighted Poilievre’s belief that “being narrow in your scope and focus” during question period is a winning strategy to get under the Grits’ skin. It remains to be seen whether his team will give Tory MPs who he disagrees with, or those who did not back him in the contest, “latitude” to rise in the chamber, he added.

(While Enwright did not specify figures to watch, eyes will likely be on veteran MP Michelle Rempel Garner in the coming days. She backed Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown in his bid for the top job before he was turfed from the contest. MP Ed Fast could be another one to watch as he expressed reservations about Poilievre’s economic agenda in the early days of the contest.)

Tory MP Shannon Stubbs, a vocal critic of O’Toole — especially his decision to warm up to a carbon price — told reporters after the caucus meeting Monday she was “excited to be Conservative again.” She commended Poilievre for being “laser-focused” on affordability issues and clear on his goal to curb taxes.

On the matter of interpersonal dynamics, Enwright added that while “everyone wants to be in the inner circle,” Poilievre will need to be careful to not develop a “clique” which can drive sentiments of “jealousy” among caucus members.

During his time in the OLO, Enwright said staffers placed an emphasis on the captain having breakfast or dinner with a new group of MPs every week to maintain caucus unity. “These are some of the little things you don’t think about. It’s not all about positions, committee titles and shadow minister titles — sometimes it’s more about the personal touch that’s really important,” he said.

That’s especially important coming out of Covid, when Canadians and politicians are grappling with pandemic fatigue, added Enwright.