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Ginny Roth: Don’t mistake Poilievre’s big business broadsides for an anti-growth agenda

Commentary

A striking scene took place last Friday—one that doesn’t typically generate much buzz for being an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence: a Canadian conservative addressing a chamber of commerce. But speaking with the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Pierre Poilievre admitted that this was the first chamber of commerce or board of trade that he has met with since becoming the Conservative Party leader 18 months ago. In contrast, he said that he has visited five local union halls and 110 “shop floors” in that time.

His message matched the overall tone he has adopted towards big business in his time as leader—which is to say he was not afraid to mince words in criticizing “utterly useless” corporate lobbyists and the business leaders who fail to stand up for workers.

Rather, he claimed that if he becomes prime minister his “daily obsession” will be to advance the interests of the “working-class” people of this country.

What is behind the strident rhetoric? And does this signal a fundamental shift in the Conservative Party’s adherence to free-market principles?

To answer the first question first, astute political observers have recently homed in on the dismal state of Canada’s GDP per capita. They rightly point out that the powerful statistic is one of the best measures of how individuals and families are experiencing the economy. And as far as it goes, things aren’t looking good. As Pierre Poilievre might put it, people don’t just need jobs, they need powerful paycheques. And when the cost of living is rising as the economy falters, Canadians’ paycheques are feeling…weak.

But as prognosticators begin to chart out what the potential future prime minister would do about the economy, this focus by him and many of his new candidates on cost-of-living—sometimes pejoratively described as economic populism—is leading many to worry that when it comes to governing, he’ll put sloganeering before sound economic principles. They’re concerned he’ll sacrifice solid financial management at the altar of political pandering, avoiding unpopular decisions and attacking, maybe even penalising, the very drivers of economic growth. 

It’s true that Poilievre’s economic policy is likely to be influenced by recent global trends and new externalities—from the rise of China as a bad-faith trading partner to the impact of new technologies on work and culture. And there’s no question that Poilievre’s campaign messaging isn’t especially friendly to the corporate class. But a plan that isn’t tied to real people’s experience of the economy is worthless.

Poilievre and his team are responding to almost a decade of political decision-making that saw workers with weakening paycheques and consumers with rising costs play second fiddle to virtue signalling global climate deals, and climbing taxes, regulations, and winner-picking corporate welfare. For them, fighting for workers means restoring the conditions in which free enterprise can flourish by restoring the baseline conditions for fair dealing. Poilievre may campaign like an economic populist, but when it comes down to it, he’ll govern like a modern fiscal conservative.

It’s hard to blame Canada’s business community for feeling trepidatious about what’s to come. More than a year into his leadership, Poilievre made sure to remind Bay Street executives at a C.D. Howe lunch that he wasn’t all that interested in spending his time meeting with them. Just last week his newest star member of Parliament, Jamil Jivani, took the opportunity in his victory speech to warn “liberal elites” in business to get their priorities straight and worry less about DEI and more about their workers.

It’s not that this commentary is mere rhetoric. Indeed, Poilievre and Jivani are quite serious about the priorities they’re setting. But rather than assuming a focus on these themes will lead to economic interventionism, it’s worth thinking through what underpins them. 

Conservatives know that for wages to go up and prices to go down or stop growing so fast (in other words, to get at that pesky GDP-per-capita problem), our economy needs to grow—especially if our population continues to grow. Left-wing populists may believe the best way to make one person’s piece of the pie bigger is to make another’s smaller, but conservatives—even pro-worker conservatives—understand that the better approach is to make the pie bigger. To make matters more complicated, much of what anemic growth we have had in Canada has been a result of our housing bubble, which Poilievre and his team are planning to help deflate.

Finally, the Conservatives want to “fix the budget.” It’s the third of their top four priorities if you assume their slogans are indicative. And while any meaningful path to balance will include finding savings, more importantly, it will involve driving revenue through economic growth, which, for a frequent Milton Friedman quoter, is going to have to come from lower taxes and deregulation. In other words, Poilievre won’t be able to achieve the Canada that he wants for workers and consumers without growth-oriented, traditionally pro-business policies.

There will no doubt be instances—like weighing whether to approve a merger or takeover or deciding whether to legislate workers back to their jobs—where free market principles will have to be weighed against competing common goods like national security or labour rights. And of course, if a company’s idea of pro-business policy is for the government to preserve protected regulatory status, tax treatment, or a funding envelope, then that is an argument for crony capitalism, not a growth agenda. Business leaders may need to come to terms with not being the heroes of a potential Poilievre government’s economic story.

After all, prioritizing the interests of a small elite is part of how our country got into this mess. But casual watchers should not mistake Poilievre’s distaste for corporate Canada’s trendier priorities with a fundamental discomfort with free market capitalism. In fact, it’s the opposite. For Poilievre, fiscal conservatism and economic populism aren’t incompatible, they’re a match made in heaven.

Jerry Amernic: The Canadian roots of the world’s biggest book club

Commentary

When Erin Woodward’s book club reads something new it’s not only the members in her home in Burlington, Ontario who read it. They are also reading the same book in New York, London, Melbourne, and Stuttgart, not to mention Dubai, Istanbul, and Singapore. The Gloss Book Club is the world’s biggest book club where its female members meet in person. And it was started by a Canadian woman who was working, and feeling isolated, in the United Kingdom.

Erin, 43, has a degree in communication and media studies from the University of Ottawa that included a stint at the University of Stendahl in France. Yes, she likes to travel and has been to 50 countries. After graduating she spent six years in London and found the city “hugely transient” in that it was full of professional people from everywhere. In an effort to meet others of like mind, she decided to form a book club. It took off and when members left London to return to their own countries they started new chapters.

Says Erin when I interviewed her: “The book is an olive branch that leads to deeper discussions.”

There were rules. Members met monthly to discuss a book, but not in someone’s home. It was always a public place—a restaurant or community centre. They paid on the go per meeting or upfront for the year. The annual fee is $55 in Canada, $55 USD in the United States, 55 pounds in the U.K., or 55 Euros in Europe—and 5 percent of that fee goes to charity. If you happen to be travelling and there is a chapter where you’re going, you can attend the meeting, but not uninvited. Every attendee has a “ticket,” in essence, a reservation, and the number of those reservations is limited.

The biggest chapter in the world is Edinburgh, Scotland with 40 spots held at each meeting, and depending on the city, the number of women who attend meetings can be anywhere from ten to 100. But that is misleading when it comes to actual membership. The average is about 1,000 members per chapter. And with 150 chapters around the world, that means 150,000 members, which is nothing to sneeze at. Boston used to be the biggest chapter, but then COVID came.

The Gloss Book Club, which has always stressed in-person meetings, had to switch to Zoom. The result? Fewer people attended and membership in some chapters plummeted. Only in 2023 did things revert to pre-pandemic levels and now things are booming again.

Each chapter is run by a host. Erin, who has two children, is the host of the Burlington chapter while her mother used to host a chapter in Lindsay, Ontario, which is the family’s hometown. But grandmothers, while welcome, are not the norm here.

The website has a media kit with all the demographics. Around the world, 42 percent of members are aged 26 to 35, and 26 percent are 36 to 45. Only 11 percent are 56 and over. When it comes to work, 59 percent of members are employees in an organization, while 11 percent are owner-managers of their own businesses. Half of them—50 percent—are married and 32 percent single. Perhaps the most telling statistic has to do with motherhood: only 40 percent of the members have children.

So The Gloss would seem to be largely an organization of younger, professional women who like to read. It was initially called The Girly Book Club when Erin established it in 2008, but this isn’t about chick lit. While there is some of that, members tackle all genres: historical fiction, contemporary fiction, memoirs, and psychedelic thrillers are especially big. In 2016 Erin incorporated, quit her job, went into this full-time, and hasn’t looked back.

The website is as slick as that of any corporation. The leadership team includes Erin as founder and CEO, along with a marketing director, a coordinator, an administrator, and a person who handles design and development. You can search chapters and their hosts, access sites with book reviews by an army of bloggers, and find links to the club on Facebook and Instagram.

Today The Gloss Book Club has 50 book reviewers around the world and books are reviewed every other day. In fact, when I checked I found a review of one of my novels, The Last  Witness. It scored a 4 out of 5. But the book discussed at the monthly meetings for all those 150 chapters is something else again. Members vote and select four books. Then another vote is taken and one book is picked to be reviewed by, well, the world.

Recent selections were the New York Times bestseller and memoir Solito by Javier Zamora, which is about a poet who tells about his migration from El Salvador to the U.S. at the age of nine. Others were Lost & Found: Reflections on Grief, Gratitude and Happiness by Kathryn Schulz, and From the Ashes: My Story of Being Indigenous, Homeless and Finding My Way by Jesse Thistle.

Erin also belongs to Goodreads, the world’s biggest site for readers, and what she reads there can be heavy. Two books she discussed are Night, Elie Wiesel’s personal account of his surviving a Nazi death camp, and Infidel which is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s struggle growing up in a strict Muslim household before finding her way to the West.

A woman puts books into a bookshelf at the book fair in Frankfurt, central Germany, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. Michael Probst/AP Photo.

The Gloss Book Club always selects a book of the year. Last year it was True Biz: A Novel by Sara Nović. This is fiction about a woman who is teaching at a boarding school for the deaf. In 2022 it was The Guncle by Steven Rowley, a humorous novel about a gay sitcom star left alone for the summer with his niece and nephew.

With all the demographics at her disposal, has Erin discovered any reading patterns? Yes. She says chick lit resonates with North American readers, but not so much in Great Britain. And here is something surprising. While this is mostly about the reading habits of younger women, more members prefer physical (i.e., paper) books over e-books and audiobooks.

Erin organizes retreats for chapter hosts and visits what she says are the world’s three biggest centres for English-language publishing: New York, London, and Toronto. She also works closely with publishers for advertising programs and events. In January, Harper Collins held an event at its Toronto office for 75 club members with two authors on hand.

The Gloss Book Club is no not-for-profit; it is an incorporated business. Erin draws a salary and runs it just like any CEO. She calls herself an “accidental entrepreneur” in that it wasn’t supposed to be a full-time job but it just happened. And with 150,000 members, things don’t have to be confined to books. That’s why this year Erin is embarking on the Business Edit, which will promote female entrepreneurship. She also plans to launch a business book club—a club within a club—to focus on business books and self-development.

When asked what she has learned from the experience, she offered these two nuggets:

  1. Community is key to wellness and self-fulfillment.
  2. Loneliness is an epidemic.

Now 16 years in, she says The Gloss Book Club addresses both those items. And one more thing is in store for 2024. In July, she and her husband will take their two kids – aged three and five – away for a whole year to live in Bali. You see, Erin wants her children to be not only readers but travellers too.