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After the trucker protests, a ‘leave us alone’ coalition could influence our politics


About 20 people broke into an impromptu rendition of ‘O Canada’ outside an Ottawa courthouse when Freedom Convoy organizer Tamara Lich was released on bail after spending two and a half weeks in jail.

With the severe terms of Lich’s release, that tuneless version of the national anthem may be the last we hear of the convoy organizers for a while.

Lich was given 24 hours to leave Ottawa and 72 hours to leave Ontario. She was also banned from using social media, which organizers used to launch the widespread and disruptive movement that seized Canada for nearly a month. Lich is specifically forbidden from contacting the other convoy organizers or joining any protests against COVID-19 restrictions.

After weeks of dominating the evening news and blasting truck horns incessantly in downtown Ottawa, the convoy movement has been mostly silenced.

It seems unlikely, though, that court injunctions and bail restrictions are enough to put a damper on the energy that fuelled the protests. After all, even though Canadians were widely scornful of the manner of the trucker protests, polls routinely found that half the country had some sympathy for the message.

A poll conducted by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue found that half of all Canadians understood the frustration of the truckers’ protest. Ipsos found that 61 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 said the truckers’ frustration is legitimate and deserves our sympathy, even though they may not agree with everything the protesters said.It’s increasingly clear that a large group of Canadians are nervous about raising their true feelings about COVID-19 and the pandemic measures. From the poll: A sizeable minority of Canadians (37%) agree (16% strongly/21% somewhat) that while they might not say it publicly, they agree with a lot of what the truck protestors are fighting for, rising to 63% of Conservative voters and 45% of Canadians aged 18-34.

Some politicians have attempted to walk the tightrope of appealing to those frustrated Canadians without getting tarnished by the extreme views of the people who organized the Freedom Convoy. Before he was removed as leader of the Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole made it clear that he would talk to protesters, but not the leaders. Pierre Poilievre, one of the party’s leadership candidates, enthusiastically greeted the convoy as it arrived in Ottawa, but has walked a finer line recently.

It’s increasingly clear that the pandemic has left in its wake a pocket of embittered Canadians who resent the government’s heavy-handed approach to battling the virus and are deeply aware of the disparities in who was affected by the non-pharmaceutical interventions. The lockdowns exposed a class divide in the West between those who can easily work from home, safe from the deadly virus, and those who continued venturing out into the world, stocking shelves, driving trucks, and delivering takeout to the homes of white collar workers.

As she heads home to Alberta, Lich is returning to a province where the energy of the convoy protests is still coursing through the population and, unlike the protests themselves, it has injected itself into the political bloodstream.

If there’s anyone who understands the unique challenges of leading a coalition of conservatives right now, it’s Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

Of course, it’s never been easy. With a long history of rifts, fractures, and simmering grievances, the conservative movement in Canada has never really been satisfied. And in Alberta, the long history of rowdy populism and grassroots democracy means there’s always a certain amount of discontent with the person in charge.

“We may be the only province with a significant strain of libertarian sentiment and skepticism about government. As I’ve said before, I think that’s actually a healthy thing to have in a political culture, to have people who jealously guard their freedom and are skeptical of both government power and overreach,” said Kenney, in an interview last year with The Hub.

“It certainly made managing the crisis more challenging here, politically, than perhaps elsewhere in Canada,” he said, with a short rueful laugh.

In Alberta, Kenney is at the epicentre of what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called an outbreak of “folk libertarianism” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Douthat was trying to understand why the conservative mind, which is supposedly more attuned to external threats and internal contamination according to social scientists, seemed less concerned about the pandemic than the research would suggest.

The American right, which is reflected both unconsciously and consciously by the Canadian right, has a hyper-individualistic streak that has always been at odds with the Burkean caution of conservatives like DouthatEdmund Burke is either seen as the godfather of North American conservatism or completely irrelevant to it. George Will wrote in his recent book The Conservative Sensibility that Burke was little more than a figurehead, with no importance to America. “Rage and phrensy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years,” wrote Burke, which could be read as a rebuke to both the contemporary North American Right and Left.. It’s a kind of middlebrow populist libertarianism that has roots in the American frontier more than the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek.

In Alberta, it has roots in the Social Credit movement in the first half of the 20th century, which was sparked by an apocalyptic radio preacher who campaigned across the province in a pickup truck. William Aberhart, also known as “Bible Bill,” was succeeded by Ernest Manning, who planned his first cabinet as premier while hammering roofing tiles into a barn on his farm. Ernest Manning governed Alberta for 25 years before his son Preston caught the next populist wave in the province with the Reform Party, decrying the state of the federal finances and special treatment for Quebec, and ascending to the status of the country’s official Opposition.

There are some similarities between this populist outburst and the wave that carried the Reform Party, said Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, who was involved in the early days of both the Reform Party and the Conservative Party.

“Alberta tends to be the homeland of these populist movements. Alberta’s political culture is more receptive to populism than just about anywhere else,” said Flanagan. “I think what’s missing right now is political leadership to pull it all together.”

Kenney has cautiously expressed support for some of the ideas behind the trucker protest, but he also knows that the discontent driving the protesters has endangered his job.

Next month, Kenney will undergo a leadership review and he’s concerned enough about his chances that he has re-assigned key advisers to prepare for the vote. He knows the same energy that sent trucks to Ottawa and Alberta’s border with the United States will be driving people to Red Deer to vote against him.

“There will be an effort, obviously by many of the folks involved in these protests, who have perhaps never belonged to a party before, to show up at that special general meeting and to use it as a platform for their anger about COVID measures over the past two years,” Kenney told reporters at a news conference in February.

Kenney’s leadership could be a canary in the coalmine for Canada’s next populist wave. It will be a test of whether political organizers can harness the anger over COVID-19 restrictions and turn it into results at the ballot box.

Whether Kenney’s leadership review becomes the beginning of a political movement or is just the political version of a primal scream after more than two years of a grinding and exhausting pandemic remains to be seen.

It’s clear, though, that young people are stirring.

On the Left, pandemic angst has taken the form of an anti-capitalist, “anti-work” movement, where young people revel in the act of quitting their jobs and leaving bosses with the difficult task of replacing them during a labour shortage.

On what can only loosely be called the Right, another movement has an unlikely and informal leader in Dave Portnoy, the founder of the Barstool Sports website, who railed against lockdowns and raised money for struggling small businesses.

With an Ipsos poll showing that Canadian adults under 35 were most likely to sympathize with the trucker protests, there could be a new political alignment simmering in Canada and the United States. The “Barstool conservatives” are the folk libertarians that Douthat identified, mostly young men, who aren’t concerned about marijuana, gay marriage, or any of the social issues that seized previous generations of conservatives. They are part of a burgeoning counter-culture that listens to Joe Rogan’s podcast, and probably a Barstool Sports podcast or two, and that revels in politically incorrect language and opinions.

Writing at The Week, Matthew Walther argued that Portnoy is the future of the conservative movement and that “he embodied the world view of millions of Americans, who share his disdain for the language of liberal improvement, the hectoring, schoolmarmish attitude of Democratic politicians and their allies in the media, and, above all, the elevation of risk-aversion to the level of a first-order principle by our professional classes.”The common thread that ties Donald Trump, Barstool Sports, Joe Rogan, and the trucker protests together, is a gleeful flouting of the language norms of the professional classes. The progressive fixation on proper terms was reflected, funhouse mirror style, in the ‘problematic’ flags at the trucker protests.

In 2009, as Barack Obama swept to power, the political activist Grover Norquist found a common thread among the unlikely allies who made up the Republican voting bloc. It was “a coalition of Americans who simply wish to be left alone by the government,” he wrote.

Although Portnoy is self-consciously non-ideological, like many of his fans, this “leave us alone” message sums up his political disposition, whether it’s about COVID-19 lockdowns or his success as an entrepreneur. Norquist, as a man of grander ideas and political experience, saw it as a way to tie together the competing factions of the conservative movement.

In the wake of the pandemic, that sentiment is strong in Canada, too.

According to a poll conducted for The Hub by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue, of the Canadians who are opposed to government restrictions, the primary concern isn’t business closures, vaccines, or even masks, but simply an objection to the “government telling me what to do.”

While anger about the pandemic restrictions is driving this current wave of populist energy, the mandates are ending and most Canadian businesses are operating at full capacity again.

Anyone looking to lead this populist movement is likely looking for a new wave to surf on.

The People’s Party of Canada, which rode a wave of discontent to five percent of the popular vote in last year’s federal election, is already looking for the next issue the party can ride, and is assuming the current political energy will dissipate as the pandemic ends.

PPC leader Maxime Bernier was road-testing a message of “radical decentralization” last year, even as his party was basking in the support of a new crowd of supporters, energized by opposition to the pandemic restrictions.

It’s an old idea brought into a new context.

“This radical decentralization was the other major reform of the federation proposed by the Reform Party in the 1990s. If Preston Manning had focused on this instead of the Triple-E Senate, he might have received some support in Quebec,” said Bernier.

The idea is “to radically downsize Ottawa,” because “most of what’s wrong in this country today originates from Ottawa.”

In short, Bernier believes that the common thread of Canada’s two most disparate provinces is a desire to be left alone by the federal government.

It’s also the fundamental question that will face the people trying to organize Kenney’s downfall. The leadership review poses a binary question about the premier, but doesn’t ask his opponents to articulate an alternate vision for the province.

If, on April 9, they succeed in bringing down the premier of Alberta, the obvious question will be: what next?

The Conservative Party’s leadership race could also represent a crucial test of how the energy of the Freedom Convoy reacts with mainstream politics.

Poilievre has nodded to it, with his emphasis on freedom in the early days of his campaign, but hasn’t fully embraced it.

The Conservative Party has always had a populist element, but there is new danger with online conspiracy theories spreading quickly through some of these communities.

Kenney described it as a “small, but real” cohort in the province that, even with decades of experience as a political communicator, he’s not sure how to deal with.

“To be honest, I just don’t know how to reach people who have decided that nothing that they hear from government or authoritative sources is credible or believable anymore,” said Kenney, in the interview with The Hub.

Manning struggled to keep fringe views out of the Reform Party, although Flanagan has written that Manning’s conflict-averse style was partly responsible for the occasions when the party was embarrassed by a member or candidate with extremist views.

“Stephen Harper showed that it was possible. But Stephen was exceptionally skillful as a leader,” said Flanagan.

“He was able to drive it all the way to almost 10 years in government. But again, it’s not easy, because the Conservative Party is a coalition of different elements. And they have to be balanced against each other,” said Flanagan.

Before these elements are balanced, they will be energized and isolated by leadership candidates trying to appeal to different factions. With former Quebec premier Jean Charest planning to appeal to new members, likely moderate voters in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, there could be another bloc of highly animated and politically inexperienced voters waiting to be activated.

The question for the Conservative Party, and anyone running for its leadership, is whether the silent group of Canadians who sympathized with the truckers are still looking for someone to represent their views or whether that energy dissipates with the rising temperatures, falling case counts, and the happy return of all the problems we put off when the COVID-19 pandemic annexed our lives.

Is Jean Charest a ‘fiscal conservative?’ Not everyone thinks so


It may be a sign of things to come that the Conservative Party’s leadership race has only one declared candidate and yet the attacks are already flowing.

At an event in Saskatchewan with local MPs, Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre, who has already declared his candidacy for leader, accused former Quebec Premier Jean Charest of raising taxes during his more than nine years in provincial office.

The criticism comes quickly on the heels of an interview in which Charest promised to bring fiscal constraint to Ottawa if he wins the Conservative leadership.

After a meeting with Conservative MPs last week, Charest told the Globe and Mail that he had a strong record as a fiscal conservative when he was Quebec’s premier and would not be running as a “red Tory,” but as a true conservative, who can appeal to the party’s base. Charest promised that he wouldn’t be “running against socons” if he joined the race.

Conservative members watching the leadership race should expect a lot more of this kind of skirmishing because, although Charest left office with a budget surplus, his record on fiscal issues drew mixed reviews at the time.

In a 2012 report by the Fraser Institute, Charest’s overall fiscal performance was ranked seventh among the ten provincial premiers. He was ahead of only Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, PEI Premier Robert Ghiz, and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger (see chart below).

Source: Fraser Institute
Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

Charest’s performance on government spending and deficits and debt was better. He ranked fifth overall amongst his peers on government spending—though still below New Brunswick Premier David Alward, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, and Nova Scotia’s Darrell Dexter—and sixth on deficits and debt. The authors observed that while Charest recorded an annual deficit, on average, over his tenure, he still managed to reduce net debt as a share of the economy due to a combination of some annual surpluses and a growing economy.

The main explanation for the difference with his overall record was his performance on taxation where Charest ranked eighth among the premiers. This mostly reflects some tax increases during his tenure and in part tax reductions in other provinces over a similar time frame.

These studies compared the policy records of the different premiers on a range of economic and fiscal indicators including the change in government spending, deficits and debt, and changes in taxation over their tenures. The think tank released several annual studies over Charest’s time as premier that evaluated Quebec’s fiscal performance relative to its peers.

The authors relied on a weighting of thirteen measures in these three areas (such as changes in program spending relative to economic growth and inflation or changes in income tax rates) to establish a score out of 100.

Charest hasn’t made his mind up about joining the race yet, but has been publicly toying with the idea and trying to shore up support with influential people in the party.

Poilievre supporters have picked up on his line of attack, with Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs declaring that the new leader “must share our values, and respect our policies. I’m against the carbon tax, the long gun registry, and for tax cuts, not tax hikes.” Stubbs also posted a photo on Twitter of Charest sharing a laugh with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and describes the former premier as a “former Liberal.”

Former senator André Pratt defended Charest in the National Post, arguing that he opposed the abolition of the long-gun registry because that’s what Quebec voters wanted and that his efforts to improve the province’s finances also included income tax cuts.

Pratt admitted that Charest has made decisions that will be unpopular with the Conservative base, but urged voters to focus on beating the Liberals in a national election rather than treating “compromise as treason” in a quest for “partisan purity.”

The Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership race started to take shape last week. The party released rules that will govern the campaign including its start date, the membership cut-off date, and that September 2 will be the date when the party members select their next leader.

This release of the rules could spark a few entrances into the race, with Charest, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, and commentator Tasha Kheiriddin considering running.