Jean Charest’s main pitch to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada – his only pitch, really – was that only he would be able to beat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a federal election: that his version of moderate conservatism wouldn’t alienate centrist voters the way Pierre Poilievre’s convoy cheerleading and weird flirtations with right-wing conspiracies would, and that his record in Quebec would help the party win crucial support in the province. The hitch in Mr. Charest’s plan, of course, was that in order to win the country, he first needed to win the party, and the party obviously wasn’t interested in Mr. Charest’s bland rice pudding of an attempted political movement.
Mr. Poilievre’s blowout win means there will be no attempt to integrate beige foods into the Conservative Party’s offerings. Those who weren’t aligned previously can either get with his program, or leave the party, as Quebec MP Alain Rayes opted to on Tuesday. Like it or not, the Conservative Party is now the Poilievre party: right-wing, abrasive, anti-establishment and unapologetic.
There is a lingering sense of incredulity – both among Conservatives who bought Mr. Charest’s message, and among Liberals who spend too much time listening to themselves talk – that Mr. Poilievre will find a way to broaden his party’s tent in strategically important regions. Sure, he’ll deepen the party’s support in Prairie provinces, which won’t matter in a federal election, and he’ll steal voters away from Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, which will lose its defining issue from the 2021 election – COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine mandates – by the next time Canadians head to the polls. But surely moderate voters throughout the rest of the country will be repulsed by Mr. Poilievre’s very right-wing form of conservatism, right?
Well, maybe. There is a clear path, however, for Mr. Poilievre to broaden his party’s support: a path expertly charted by Jason Kenney more than a decade ago when he served as immigration minister in prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. For years, Mr. Kenney worked the event circuit in immigrant communities in the 905 area-code region – the horseshoe swath of Southern Ontario enveloping Toronto proper, which is home to a large proportion of immigrant and middle-class families – and sold the Conservative Party as representative of residents’ interests and values. Mr. Kenney was hugely successful, and his work is credited as a major factor in delivering Mr. Harper his majority in 2011. It’s also the region that the Ontario Progressive Conservatives nearly swept in the last election, an election in which Premier Doug Ford grounded his campaign on the issue of affordability.
Mr. Poilievre is already speaking the language of these communities when he talks about the cost of living and soaring housing prices. He resonates with these voters when he promises to oppose any tax increases and when he laments the barriers preventing skilled immigrants from working in their trained fields in Canada. An Ipsos poll taken just before the last election found that those living in the 905 prioritized issues around taxes slightly higher than those in other polled regions. A more recent Leger survey, conducted in partnership with the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, found that new Canadians ranked the high cost of living as the top reason why they have reservations recommending that others move to Canada, followed by the lack of recognition for foreign credentials and difficulty finding a job. Mr. Poilievre made those issues central to his leadership campaign, and no doubt will make them central to the CPC’s continuing messaging as well.
The Liberals will inevitably try to remind voters about Mr. Poilievre’s crass attempt to curry favour among convoy participants, but those attacks may carry less weight in the 905 than they will in urban centres. Indeed, that same Leger poll asked in a general-population survey of Canadians whether the trucker convoy made them less proud to be Canadian, and compared the results to the responses from a panel of new Canadians. It found that far fewer new Canadians had strong feelings one way or another: 24 per cent of respondents in the general-population survey said they felt the same/no different, compared to 42 per cent of new Canadians. When asked whether the convoy made them feel more or less welcome, 56 per cent of new Canadians said their feelings were unchanged. That survey was conducted just days after the convoy ended, when emotions would have been at their peak, meaning the Liberals will have a tough slog trying to get people to care about it in a few years.
The attacks on Mr. Poilievre will no doubt try to paint him as scary, xenophobic – a sort of Trump-lite. But while the Liberals will be talking about immigrant communities in reference to Mr. Poilievre’s supposed intolerance, he will be talking directly to them, and specifically about the concerns that affect their day-to-day lives. That is how Mr. Poilievre will, and indeed likely already has, broadened the Conservative tent, despite his occasional forays into the bizarre, the dumb and the crass. And he’s taken the first, most crucial step already: he’s actually won the support of the party.