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Ginny Roth: Being ‘boring’ isn’t in Poilievre’s DNA—And thank God for that

Commentary

As Conservatives descended on Quebec City late last week, coming together in advance of Parliament’s fall sitting, lots of people had similar advice for leader Pierre Poilievre: Be boring. The going wisdom these days is that the Liberals are floundering, Justin Trudeau’s star is sinking, and events are conspiring to give the Conservatives a major, sustained lead in the polls. According to this received wisdom, the best thing Pierre Poilievre can do is shut up and keep his head down, letting nature run its course. Or as Rudyard Griffiths put it on the Hub Roundtable a few weeks ago, he should sit back and just watch the sunset.

But this advice is flawed for a few reasons: sitting back didn’t work for Poilievre’s predecessors; it’s not what will motivate many people in his voter universe; and perhaps most importantly, he’s an authentic leader and hiding away hoping to escape notice just isn’t who he is.

Last Thursday, the Conservatives unveiled a new logo, scrubbing away any lingering mark left by previous leader Erin O’Toole. After running on a “true blue” leadership platform, O’Toole tacked to the centre, compromising—both in substance and tone—on important conservative issues to chart a path to electoral victory. He was the embodiment of the received wisdom, making the last election a helpful counterfactual example of its application. After all, it wasn’t written in the stars that O’Toole would be voted out by his own caucus. 

What if O’Toole were still the leader? What if the Conservatives were still explaining a complicated carbon savings account scheme, accepting the Liberal framing that consumers ought to pay for emissions out of their own pockets, as the cost of gas and groceries skyrocketed this past year? What if the party was avoiding issues like guns and crime, worried Liberals would attack them? What if they had vilified the Canadians concerned about their personal freedoms during over-used COVID lockdowns, sending them running to Maxime Bernie’s PPC in droves? What if they had absolved the Liberals and the Bank of Canada of any guilt in exacerbating today’s crippling inflation, avoiding any uncouth critiques of Canadian institutions in favour of vague worry and hand-wringing?

Poilievre didn’t win his party’s leadership in a landslide by bowing out of big fights, ceding major public policy territory to his opponents, and hoping the media wouldn’t notice him (or that they wouldn’t find him too offensive). We don’t have to imagine how the Conservative party would fare if it tried to avoid big important fights—we already know. It would linger in opposition, as it has this last decade. 

Part of the reason the play-it-safe approach didn’t work is because of how it approached a potential Conservative voter universe. The Boring Conservative strategy targets a narrow pool of voters. It assumes all Poilievre has to do is convince some reticent Liberals to consider voting Conservative by being inoffensive, and not “scary”. But as we learned in the last election, even if a quiet approach gives some Liberal voters permission to consider voting Conservative, timidity is a recipe for failure.

We know from the data that in the last election, a lot of Canadians who had previously voted Conservative stayed home, and we know that some of them voted PPC. And we know now, from polling, that Poilievre’s growing voter universe is coming from a variety of sources, drawing on some Liberal, NDP, and PPC support, but most importantly, from Canadians who didn’t vote in the last election. The bold strategy Poilievre took in the leadership, to appeal not only to stalwart members but draw new people into the movement—many of them young and new to politics in general—worked like a charm. Now, he’s deploying the big voter universe strategy to the next general election, and it’s putting the Conservatives as high as 40 percent in some polls.

Finally, telling Poilievre to be boring betrays a complete misunderstanding of who he is and why he’s so attractive to so many voters in 2023. The people suggesting Poilievre tone it down tend to be the same ones who felt he was too angry, his edges too sharp, and his policies too radical to pivot from success in the leadership to success with the broader electorate. They’re also the people who are gob-smacked, shaking their heads in befuddlement, at his success with Gen Z and Millennial voters.

But many of us are not surprised. When comfortable Boomers heard Poilievre sounding too angry, working Millennial parents heard a guy who finally understood that their weekly grocery bills were making them literally weep. When press gallery media bristled at his edginess in press conferences or gasped at his willingness to criticize the Bank of Canada, 30-year-olds living in their parents’ basements heard a guy who was finally willing to speak up for them, against a broken system other politicians refused to question. And when pollsters and columnists insisted young voters would never support a politician who wouldn’t “price carbon”, those same young voters showed up to rallies in droves to axe a punitive carbon tax that only Poilievre would commit to cancelling. 

All of this is not to say that Poilievre and the Conservatives haven’t done great work increasing their appeal with the electorate, or that they shouldn’t continue to do so. The party launched a series of ads introducing the leader, his wife, and his priorities to Canadians on a more personal level, and there’s no question the party has spent more time talking about cost-of-living issues, and less time on some of the narrower concerns of the party membership. But broadening his appeal is not the same as softening his image, no matter what every headline on the ad campaign says.

When change happens, it can be tempting to assume that it was inevitable. What seemed impossible to many a few years ago—that Canada’s Conservatives would be dominating the public opinion polls, even leading among young voters and in tricky regions—is starting to feel like the natural course of things. If you’re a self-confident analyst, it’s easy to convince yourself you saw it coming, that it’s happening because Poilievre tempered himself just as you advised, and that the best thing for him to do now is to duck his head below the parapet and pray. Fortunately for Conservatives and Canadians, being boring isn’t in Poilievre’s DNA. 

Sean Speer: We may have underestimated Pierre Poilievre

Commentary

When Pierre Poilievre became Conservative Party leader almost precisely twelve months ago, many commentators (including to a certain extent me) assumed that a considerable share of the country already had well-developed views about him and his politics.

There was a sense that his youthful reputation as a so-called “attack dog” had permeated beyond the parliamentary precinct to reach the broader public including those elusive swing voters that Conservatives need to overcome the relative inefficiency of their national vote.

Poilievre and his team ostensibly believed that those prevailing assumptions were wrong. Rather than bucking up against a hardened view of him as a polarizing political figure, the past year has actually involved introducing him to most Canadians for the first time. A summer tour and major advertising campaign have been the most notable manifestations of this concerted effort to present Poilievre’s personal story, his values, and political priorities to the country. A recent series of polls—including ones that show his personal popularity rising—tell us that they were right and the rest of us were wrong.

Last night’s speech to the Conservative Party’s convention in Québec City must be understood therefore as part of an ongoing process to introduce Poilievre to voters. Viewed through this lens, it was a highly effective evening that should continue to socialize them to the growing potentiality of a Prime Minister Poilievre.

It started with a multilingual introduction by his wife, Anaida Poilievre, who has proven to have something of the political “it” factor. Her personal story meshes so well with his own and his broader message about what he calls the “promise of Canada” that it was almost hard to discern the point where her speech ended and his begun. The growing view that she’s a major asset to her husband’s political ambitions was reinforced last night.

Poilievre’s own speech, based on my interpretation, had four different key components. It’s worth unpacking each of them to better understand the ideas and messages that we can anticipate from him and the Conservatives between now and the next election.

The first was an empirical takedown of the Trudeau government’s record against a backdrop of growing evidence of economic stagnation and social disorder. Poilievre drew on a range of data and proof points, including crime rates, food bank use, housing prices, and public spending, to convey a stark yet compelling story about the lousy state of the country.

It reflects his effectiveness as a political communicator. He’s uniquely able to absorb Statistics Canada data releases, think-tank papers, and other primary source materials, and compress them into a simple yet effective narrative—one that works in this particular case precisely because it connects to people’s own sense of their personal economy and household circumstances.

The second was a social mobility narrative that similarly draws on the personal stories of him and his wife. Anaida Poilievre’s remarks in particular about working as a teenager at McDonald’s were a powerful marker about who they are and the cultural and social milieu in which they’ve grown up. It’s a signal to middle-class Canadians across the country that they’re genuinely one of them.

I thought that most effective part of the speech was when he spoke of the “promise of Canada” (which he essentially defined as intergenerational mobility) as the “most important promise [that] Justin Trudeau broke.” Polling that shows a growing share of Canadians are anxious about their children’s future affirms this line of argument.

It works as a critique of the government but also as an anchor for Poilievre’s own forthcoming policy agenda. “Restoring the Canadian promise” is a powerful message that unites conservatives (I told Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson as far back as August 2020 that social mobility is “the very core of modern conservatism”), resonates with the broader public, and can manifest itself in a wide range of policy areas including education, employment, families, housing, immigration, regulations, taxes, and so on. It’s promising to see Poilievre and his team settle on it as an overarching framework for his policy priorities.

The third is what can be described as the speech’s “anti-woke” section which loomed larger than one might have anticipated perhaps due to the salience of these issues with Québec conservatives. Poilievre spoke of the Trudeau government’s general discomfort with expressions of nationalism and its tendency to look negatively upon Canada’s history and patriotic sense of itself. He raised in particular the need for English Canada to adopt Québec’s more affirmative sense of its own culture and history.

It suggests that we may come to see a more sustained “anti-woke” dimension to his critique of the Trudeau government. There’s reason to believe that such positioning could find resonance with Canadians based in large part on the nascent view that progressives have overreached with identity politics. It must involve however a careful balancing act for Conservatives to critique the inherent illiberalism of an identity politics based on immutable characteristics such as race, gender and sexuality without appearing indifferent to rare yet ongoing instances of discrimination.

The fourth was housing. This is where, as a matter of policy and politics, he’s at his strongest. Whether it was intuition or better polling, Poilievre has had first-mover advantage on the file for several months and it showed in his speech.

Not only does he have a strong command of the causes and factors that have led to runaway housing prices, but he’s out in front of the other party leaders with a concrete plan to address them. At this point, one gets the sense that the best that Prime Minister Trudeau can aim for is to neutralize the issue by essentially raiding his chief opponent’s ideas. Yet even that would seem like an implicit victory for Poilievre and the Conservatives.

There were of course other issues covered in the speech including crime, climate change, defence spending, deficits, and debt. But these topics were subordinate to his core appeal about restoring the “promise of Canada.”

After a year as Conservative leader, a key takeaway from last night’s convention speech is that Poilievre seems prepared to bet his political future on the ideas and messages outlined above. A key lesson over the past twelve months is that those of us in the commentariat would be wise not to underestimate such a bet.