Chairman's Desk

Pierre Poilievre has muted ‘electability’ challenges, emerging as a prime minister in waiting

It’s less than two weeks from the Conservative party’s first leadership debate, and Pierre Poilievre has established himself as the clear front-runner.

After recently dazzling over a thousand supporters at a packed Steam Whistle brewery event in downtown Toronto, the extent of his lead is such that his competitors have stopped contesting the popularity of his events.

“We have been spending 100 per cent of our time selling memberships,” Patrick Brown’s national co-chair Michelle Rempel Garner told the Globe. Others say that Maxime Bernier also attracted large numbers without it translating proportionally to membership sales or votes.

Both counter arguments hold some truth — but it also goes without saying that any leadership aspirant would kill for the enthusiasm Poilievre has seen across the country, including in unconventional locations like, say, a downtown Toronto brewery.

The question is not whether he leads the enthusiasm race, but rather what this lead means.

Many have questioned if his online followers or rally attendees will purchase Conservative memberships and ultimately vote. That said, it is easy to believe that Canadians willing to wait in line for an hour to attend a political rally during a cold Canadian winter are as likely as anyone to show up in September. His operations team is second to none, and he will benefit from years of legwork building enduring relationships with local riding associations, campus clubs and industry groups across the country.

Critics have also suggested that the tent he has built, while angry and vocal, is simply too narrow to be competitive in a general election. I am not so sure. I think there is a fundamental change in the attitudes of Canadians that many are missing.

While his criticism of the governing Liberals is often hyperbolic, his message to voters is a familiar one for conservatives, characterized by smaller government, a fundamental belief in personal freedoms and attention to pocketbook concerns.

Rather than ask whether Poilievre is too right-wing to be electable, it’s a more useful exercise to examine the “third rails” that have plagued Conservative candidates in the past.

We know, for example, that the Canadian public doesn’t hold the same anti-immigration sentiments as other western nations. Our skills-based assessment process and labour-market need for more qualified workers make large-scale immigration both necessary and popular. That’s why policies that appear resistant to multiculturalism, like the Harper government’s “barbaric cultural practices” hotline, have unquestionably hurt the Conservatives’ brand as a big-tent party.

However, Poilievre appears to understand Canadians’ attitudes, rolling out a plan to speed up wait times for approving foreign credentials as an initial appeal to new Canadians and those who support their participation in the Canadian economy. Surprising many, he has also been willing to depart from social conservatives on issues like abortion and equal marriage, most recently voting with his caucus colleagues to criminalize conversion therapy.

His small-government ethos will inevitably be attacked by labour advocates as an austerity agenda, but he has been assertive and clear in contrasting his own political philosophy versus the current government’s. He argues that endless dependence on printed money drives up the price of goods, only hurting Canadian workers and families.

On other issues, his path forward is less clear. While many Canadians share his criticism of the government’s public health restrictions and inconsistent guidance, an even greater number watched the Ottawa convoy with horror, perplexed that any parliamentarian would stand with an illegal protest as it lay siege to our nation’s capital.

God willing, the COVID-19 debate will be in the rear-view mirror by our next federal election campaign, but Poilievre must work to ensure he is not defined by his most provocative public positions.

Maintaining party enthusiasm while growing the tent has been an unmanageable balancing act for his two predecessors. But with every jam-packed rally, Pierre Poilievre moves that much closer to getting the keys to Stornoway and setting his sights on a bigger target.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 24, 2022.

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