The Conservatives must pick a leader who can win elections

Pierre Poilievre was just five years old when Jean Charest was elected to parliament at the age of 26. Poilievre was a year younger than that when elected in an Ottawa area riding in 2004.

He was Minister of Employment and Social Development for eight months in 2015, during which he was censured by the elections commissioner for using a Government of Canada benefits announcement to explicitly promote the Conservative party.

He is deeply partisan. Combined with his quick mind it makes him a superb counter-puncher in debate.

A tiny number of truckers had been videoed waving Nazi flags. Trudeau used that to suggest that all truckers and their supporters were Nazi sympathizers.

Poilievre, who had denounced the flags, referenced Trudeau’s blackface incidents and the known discontent of half a dozen Liberal members of colour as evidence that Trudeau was racist. He asked rhetorically whether that should be taken as evidence that all Liberals are racist.

It was good political theatre and earned him support from many MPs. If Erin O’Toole had made that intervention he might still be the Conservative leader.

Poilievre tightly control the agenda. He tried to bully the leadership committee into a rushed process and is the only candidate against having a third debate. His office did not respond to two requests for an interview for this space.

He ducks questions that are important to key audiences. To avoid offending  Quebec nationalists, he is the only candidate to remain silent on Quebec Bill 96, which restricts the rights of anglophones. To cater to the social conservatives in the caucus, he says that he would not introduce an act to restrict abortion, but will not say how he would vote if one of them did.

He will cancel the carbon tax and supports multiple energy projects, including Bay Du Nord oil off Newfoundland and a natural gas pipeline from Western Canada through Saguenay to global markets.

During the English debate, he was challenged by the other candidates on his promotion of bitcoin. He claimed that he had not done so, and only said that Canadians should be free to own and use digital currencies. Not true.

Freedom to use bitcoin is a non-issue. There is no law against it. Poilievre used it to buy shawarma at a restaurant, while touting on social media that the shop owner had “outsmarted” the federal government to “beat inflation”. In March he said: “Choice and competition can give Canadians better money and financial products. Not only that, but it can also let Canadians opt out of inflation, with the ability to opt in to cryptocurrencies.”

Not only has that shop owner experienced the same inflation as the rest of us, but his bitcoin has lost more than half its value since the beginning of the year. Some crypto currency exchanges have gone bust, resulting in total losses for customers.

Inflation in Canada, though high, is lower than in the United States or the European Union. Some of it is from the stimulus in all three, plus supply chain challenges. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven a spike in oil prices with knock-on effects on food and other commodities.

Poilievre criticizes the Liberals for interfering with the independence of the Bank of Canada, and then says he would fire the current governor, Tiff Macklem. Most people would call that interference. Maybe he would call it a special monetary operation.

The replacement governor would have to attack inflation with the same tools that Macklem is now employing.

Poilievre is a skilled campaigner for the Conservative leadership. His nimble mind and fluid style make him a hit with crowds. He cultivates legitimate grievances that Canadians have with the Liberals’ overreaching pandemic measures. He did a videoed walkabout in the clogged lineups at Pearson Airport as evidence.

If chosen as leader, he will leave no room on the right for Max Bernier’s Peoples Party of Canada, which cost the Conservatives about 10 seats in the last election. The problem is that he has no room to grow the party’s support in the other direction. The Conservatives need to take 40-50 seats from the Liberals to win a majority.

Liberal insider Scott Reid told The Globe and Mail that the Liberals should worry about Poilievre if he wins. Perhaps Reid is being insincere.

The Liberals will be delighted. They will already be busy assembling videos of him promoting bitcoin, together with the worst behaviours by a minority of the truckers’ convoy. He will be pictured as a leader who whose response to a pandemic would not include vaccinations or masks. They will fill in the blanks on his promises to cut government spending – childcare? health? Old Age Security?

Liberal voters itching for a change might find it hard to vote for a leader who has nothing to say about climate change, women’s abortion rights, or the need to counter online hate speech. The votes of centrist Conservatives will be at risk if they see Poilievre as a rebirth of the Reform Party.

When Conservative party members vote they will rank the candidates in order of preference. Each of the decisions they make will be important. As they rank their choices for leader they should think hard about who can win the next election.


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