At 36, Pierre Poilievre has built a career with a brazen approach to partisanship, and in 11 years as an MP gained a reputation for taking on hardball political tasks. But there are things he won't do: His own party has a hard time getting him to announce government spending, because it clashes with his small-government principles.
Ironically, he now oversees the government's biggest cheque-writing department. The flagship policy he touts – expanding child benefits for parents – isn't the pure economic freedom he's espoused since he was a 19-year-old student and wrote an essay arguing that less government means more freedom: It's collecting billions in taxes from one group to hand it to another. But he's more of an incrementalist now, so he sees sending cheques to parents as better than another option, government daycare programs. "What has evolved is my tactics. Everything has to be compared to its alternative," Mr. Poilievre said in an interview.
Now, with John Baird gone and Peter MacKay and James Moore going, there's an empty space where stars used to be. And Stephen Harper is pushing Mr. Poilievre into it.
He became a junior minister for Democratic Reform just two years ago, and steered the controversial Fair Elections Act into law. In February, the Prime Minister promoted him to Employment and Social Development Minister, in charge of the government's biggest department and a key election-platform policy, the expansion of child-care benefit cheques for parents. In Question Period this spring, Finance Minister Joe Oliver often sat silent while Mr. Poilievre responded to budget questions.
It is a political coming of age. At 16, he was using his radio announcer's voice to sell Reform Party memberships for Jason Kenney. Mr. Poilievre's only real private-sector job was a post-university stint as partner in a company that did robocalls for politicians. He was a young staffer for Stockwell Day, and, after 18 months in Ottawa, ran for Parliament. Now he's a senior figure.
Two news stories this spring illustrate why he's a political success who drives some people bonkers: In March, when a government contract that employed 50 developmentally disabled people shredding paper was cancelled, he overrode bureaucracy to get it reinstated. This week, when the National Capital Commission was to vote on an unpopular memorial to victims of communism, he packed its board with Tories.
On the Hill, Mr. Poilievre is a symbol of combative partisanship. In minority government days, back in 2007, he was the guy the Prime Minister's Office dispatched to gum up proceedings in a committee where the opposition wanted to study the so-called in-and-out election scandal. In the Commons, he returns opposition questions with partisan jabs. On TV, he delivers party lines. As reporters ask questions, he's been known to repeat the same answer over and over. The upshot is that answering questions is about communications strategy, not answering questions.
"I think the ideas I work toward are worth fighting for, and to do that, you frequently have to point out the flaws of the alternatives," he said. "That's the nature of our parliamentary system."
People in his Nepean-Carleton riding see the other Pierre. Off camera, he's quieter, smiling, funny and a touch awkward. In the riding, he talks about the bridge he helped get built and lower taxes, not political philosophy. To win the Conservative nomination in 2004, the 24-year-old from Calgary went door-to-door to try to meet party members and potential sign-ups. Bill Ayyad, later his riding president, recalled he told his daughter to tell the kid at the door they had no empty bottles. But Mr. Poilievre eventually got in the door.
"I said, 'Who is this guy?'" said former Conservative minister John Baird, then the riding's provincial MPP. "Pierre saw an opportunity. He came into the riding, wowed people and worked really hard."
Still, it's clear that Mr. Poilivre isn't of the Harper Conservative base, from Tim Hortons and tire shops. He's been interested in conservative political philosophy since before he wrote that essay, tinged with Ayn Rand phrases, at 19. But he is becoming a prominent face on the team, and fits the front bench as a devotee of Harper politics: He's learned how to translate less-government ideas into bites that ordinary folks can relate to – and how to sell them aggressively.
He believes in the fight part of politics. And now he's doing it from the front row.