Ginny Roth: If you want to know how Pierre Poilievre would govern, try listening to him

Just because Poilievre’s slogans resonate doesn’t mean there is no substance behind them
Pierre Poilievre, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, holds a press conference at Gardewine Transport in Winnipeg Friday, January 12, 2023. John Woods/The Canadian Press.

Pierre Poilievre won the leadership of the Conservative Party almost a year and a half ago. Despite rolling out policy announcement after policy announcement during that campaign and in the time since, serious political observers remain convinced they don’t know what he’ll do when he becomes prime minister.1See Campbell Clark in the Globe and Mail this week, or this recent episode of the Herle Burly podcast for instance As a close watcher of Poilievre, and frankly, someone eager for the type of change he would bring, I think I have a clear picture of what he would do. Indeed, his ideological consistency over the years has been borderline rigid. He famously wrote an essay as an undergraduate student, entire sections of which would not be at all out of place in a speech he might give today. 

As a communicator, Poilievre obsesses over facts and substance, uninterested in uttering a word or phrase that doesn’t say something meaningful and action-oriented, backed up by a powerful fact or statistic. As a campaigner, he’s offering almost revolutionary change, going so far as to say that Canada is broken, a country not in need of some minor tweaking but desperate for wholesale transformation. And as a parliamentarian, he and his party are using every tool at their disposal, from private members bills to opposition motions, to daily question period, to show Canadians what they would do if they held the levers of power.

So, what explains the constant refrain that while Poilievre has increased his likeability, painted broad strokes, and given us hints, he’s light on policy and either doesn’t have a plan or if he does have one, he’s hiding it? 

Given the evidence—exhaustive policy announcements, clear commitments, and a predictable worldview—it seems clear that there’s a breakdown between what Poilievre is saying, and what skeptical pundits are hearing. After years of wading through meaningless talking points and relentless spin from politicians of all political stripes, analysts have been trained to treat political communications hyper-skeptically, baking in assumptions about rhetoric and sincerity, almost incapable of taking elected officials at their word. These analysts don’t understand that Poilievre means what he says and says what he means.

That’s not to say that he’ll be able to accomplish every policy goal he sets. Practical matters of cabinet and caucus management, managerial competence, and an intransigent public service will make much of the change difficult. But if you want an idea of what Poilievre would do as prime minister, try listening to him. 

First, it’s important to address the matter of policy commitments directly. It’s hard to dismiss the assertion that Poilievre is a policy lightweight without, practically speaking, just writing an exhaustive list of the various policies he’s committed to. I’ll spare readers such a list and simply say that a few hours and an internet connection reveal there’s almost no federal department and current ministerial mandate for which Poilievre hasn’t made multiple actionable policy commitments. In some cases, his future ministers’ mandate letters write themselves. From repealing the carbon tax, to accrediting new Canadians in their fields of expertise, to bail reform, to tying municipal infrastructure to housing starts, it’s not at all hard to imagine what a Conservative government’s first few months in power would look like.

What about areas where Poilievre hasn’t yet articulated a specific policy course? What about trying to understand how he and his government would react to unpredictable world events? When it comes to dropping hints and giving us a sense of how he’d approach things, he’s been about as subtle as a brick through a window. Poilievre developed a set of first principles in his teen years that he continues to hold today. And they’re not new. He believes in personal freedom and small government. Small democracy and individual liberty. He thinks free market capitalism is better than crony capitalism for workers and consumers, and that when government gets in the way, everyone suffers. He’s a patriot who thinks Canada should stand up for its own interest and stand against terror and despotism, and he’s a realist who knows bullies respond to strength.

It’s true that the space between principle and practical politics is vast and that in practice applying this worldview to real problems would be challenging. But if people want to understand what policy approach that Poilievre and his government would take to a global recession, another pandemic, or a new war abroad, apply the principles. 

Finally, it must be said there are policy areas that Poilievre has de-emphasized. People often point to climate change (or at least the elite view of what climate change policy should look like) as such an area of neglect. And there’s no question the Liberals will attempt to incite fear in voters by suggesting that the Conservatives haven’t said what they’ll cut from the federal budget. But in both instances, Poilievre has outlined his thinking in broad strokes.

On climate, he has rejected the idea that carbon emissions respect sovereign borders, prioritizing reducing global emissions by displacing Chinese coal with Canadian LNG. He’s also suggested that so long as they don’t tax consumers, provinces should be empowered to achieve their own emission reduction targets. He’s also talked about the role of innovation and the private sector in developing new technologies.

On deficit reduction and the size of government, he’s discussed a pay-as-you-go law that would reduce government spending by a dollar for every new dollar committed. He’s talked about canceling multi-billion-dollar big-ticket items like the CBC and the Canada Infrastructure Bank. More importantly, Poilievre isn’t naïve. He and his party know that they can’t be sure what they would find if they formed government. To model carbon emissions or deficit reduction plans in a detailed way on Liberal numbers would be a fool’s errand, and a trap not worth falling into. 

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre points at his message at a press event in Vancouver. B.C., Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press.

This analysis of Poilievre’s commitments and principles doesn’t even factor in that the Conservatives have not yet released a platform. Reasonable observers will surely concede that political parties and their leaders do not owe the public a thorough, detailed plan more than a year out from the next election. Regardless, they should expect one well before voters cast their ballots. And given Poilievre’s forthrightness to date, they shouldn’t expect many surprises.

Given all this context, it’s especially baffling to hear the nerdy politician described as light on policy and it’s helpful to try to understand why. It could be that conservative policy tends to be simpler. It’s often about not doing or funding something. But actually, Poilievre has committed to some relatively complicated intergovernmental policies on housing and immigrant accreditation. It could be that his commitments seem too bold, so listeners bake in their skepticism, assuming he can’t possibly mean what he says. But actually, he’s so consistently clear and bold that if his plan was not to follow through on any of his commitments, it would be a short tenure in office. 

The likeliest explanation is that people assume Poilievre’s communications savvy and successful retail politics mean he can’t possibly be a serious policy guy. Pundits assume a politician can’t be a populist and an intellectual, a savvy communicator and a policy wonk, a firebrand and a thinker. What these pundits don’t understand is that Poilievre’s communications strength is his policy chops. He knows what so many politicians have forgotten: that if you have a policy idea and you can’t communicate about it clearly, it might not be a great policy idea.

Just because Poilievre’s slogans resonate doesn’t mean there is no substance behind them, and just because they’re compelling to regular people, doesn’t mean they’re not informed by good policy. So, next time you listen to Poilievre, don’t throw up your skeptical politician-speak decoder, don’t try to cut through the spin, don’t discount his lofty goals with a heavy dose of realism, don’t dismiss his preamble as talking points, and don’t assume his crescendos are mere applause lines. Just listen.

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s weekly email newsletter.

You'll get our weekly newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.