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

Commentary

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.See 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.

Sean Speer: Canada really is broken right now

Commentary

Although the timing of the next federal election is unknown, it seems increasingly clear that the ballot question will be about whether voters believe that “Canada is broken.”

New polling conducted by Abacus Data on behalf of the consulting firm, Meredith and Boessenkool Policy Advisors, finds that just over 60 percent of Canadians today believe that the answer is yes—a 40 percent change since the 2021 election. The poll identifies various factors, including the cost of living (particularly food and fuel), housing, health care, immigration, and the prime minister himself, behind these gloomy public sentiments.  

It prompts the question: what explains the marked change in the public’s mood over the 28 months since the last election?

The Liberals might claim that the answer lies with Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre’s effective communications. According to this line of argument, his simple yet flawed slogans have come to crystalize the idea that Canada is broken in the minds of a sizeable majority of the public. 

One can see this interpretation in the actions and assertions of the government, including the prime minister’s claim last year that progressives need “better messaging” or new reports that Ottawa may be planning to “rebrand” the carbon tax. Yet interpreting the public’s anxiety and frustration as merely a communication problem misses the point.

The truth is there’s a profound sense of malaise in the country that Poilievre has channeled rather than catalysed. Although this sentiment has economic roots, it also reflects a deeper sense that the basic features of Canadian life aren’t functioning as well as they have in the past and that government action or inaction is largely responsible. 

The chief economic cause is Canada’s poor record on GDP per capita. It has been stagnant for six years, actually declining for the past six quarters, and is not expected to recover pandemic losses until 2027 or later. Even if one believes that GDP per capita is an incomplete economic measure, it’s self-evidently suboptimal for households and the economy as a whole that it’s shrinking rather than growing. We’re effectively facing a lost decade for Canadian living standards. 

A major factor behind these trends is the Trudeau government’s mismanaged immigration policy. We still don’t have an adequate explanation for what’s behind the unprecedented increase in the number of non-permanent residents entering the country. Was it a deliberate policy strategy? If so, why? And if wasn’t, how did it happen? 

This past year shouldn’t be viewed as a one-off either. Virtually all of the biggest year-over-year increases in the number of non-permanent residents have during the Trudeau government. It’s hard not to conclude therefore that it has amounted to either a purposeful or inadvertent policy strategy that seems to have been pursued without any consideration of the externalities. As economist Ben Rabidoux recently put it: “If this government were actively trying to stoke anti-immigration sentiment, it would be indistinguishable from current approach.”

Then there’s been the more than a decade-high increase in violent crime, a 30-year high in the murder rate, and daily evidence of urban disorder, including growing empirical questions about the harm-reduction model to deal with drugs and substance abuse. Public safety, which had by and large been a dormant political issue for years, has suddenly reemerged as a key concern for Canadians—particularly in our major cities. 

There are also new doubts about state capacity at the federal and provincial levels and whether we’re receiving good governance in exchange for our hard-earned tax dollars. The federal government’s employment footprint is now 40 percent larger under the Trudeau government and yet in parallel we’ve seen spending on third-party consultants grow by one-third since 2017 alone. This dissonance has naturally led to questions about what precisely we’re paying for or what we’re getting for it.  

One doesn’t need to fixate on outright scandals—such as the sole-source contract with WE Charity or the so-called “ghost contracts” with GC Strategies—to reach the conclusion that something seems off in Ottawa. Maybe it’s the consequence of hybrid work or an inattention to implementation or too much focus on provincial and local matters for which federal officials lack pre-existing competencies. Whatever the explanation, mounting government failures represent a threat to the public’s trust and are doubtless a contributing factor to the overall sense of malaise. 

Finally, there’s plenty of evidence that Canada’s role in the world has diminished under the Trudeau government’s watch. Although the government can point to different data on public spending on defence and national security that may make its record look better or worse, it seems incontrovertible that Canada is both more isolated and irrelevant than it has been in a long time. Our exclusion from key multilateral initiatives such as AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is indicative of this alarming trend. 

The totality of these inexhaustive examples reflects an inherent political challenge for the government. Any attempt to dissuade the notion that Canada is broken risks looking out of touch. Yet any concession that the country is broken effectively concedes culpability. The Trudeau government is now going about fixing its own mistakes—including cutting the number of international student visas—which, in a way, is itself an inherent admission of guilt. 

Ultimately a judgement on whether Canada is broken is somewhat subjective and inevitably shot through with our ideological and partisan biases. But irrespective of how one comes down on this question, there are some interesting lessons from the Trudeau government’s complicated experience. 

A security guard stands in front of a broken window at the Hudson’s Bay Company store in Vancouver. Robert Skinner/The Canadian Press.

The biggest may be that Canadians aren’t particularly ideological. They’re really searching for quietly competent governance. They expect basic, reliable public administration and are prepared to punish governments that succumb to ideological excesses especially if it’s perceived to come at the expense of delivering on their basic needs. 

Prime Minister Trudeau came to office with a message that essentially offered the aspects of the previous Harper government that Canadians liked, including an economic focus, a commitment to sound public finances, and a general moderation on matters of culture and identity but in a more compassionate and positive packaging. It basically amounted to Harperism with a smile. 

Over time, however, the government seems to have misinterpreted its mandate to believe that Canadians had bought into a more full-throated progressivism including large-scale deficits and debt accumulation, a more active role for the state in the economy and society, and a growing nod to faddish trends in progressive identity politics. 

Today’s consistent polling in favour of the Conservative Party represents in large part a correction to these perceived excesses and failures of the Trudeau government. When Canadians tell pollsters that Canada is broken, they’re not saying that they’re giving up on the country. What they’re really saying is they want to get back to pragmatic governance. They want a government focused on its core responsibilities on the economy, immigration, crime, public administration, and Canada’s role in the world. Getting back to basic is ultimately the best way out of the sense of brokenness that has befallen us.