For aficionados of Canadian politics, an admittedly declining species, the House of Commons matchup of Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre is the main event of the fall season.
For the first time as Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau faces a Leader of the Official Opposition who possesses communication skills that rival his own. Mr. Trudeau benefited from comparisons with previous Conservative Party leaders Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole, neither of whom could hold an audience. In Mr. Poilievre, he faces an opponent who can draw a crowd.
That has to be a major cause for concern in Liberal ranks. Mr. Trudeau won three consecutive federal elections against Tory leaders who were relatively weak or, in the case of former prime minister Stephen Harper, irretrievably weakened. After seven years in power, and a series of scandals on par with those of Mr. Harper’s government, Mr. Trudeau’s own popularity has plummeted, and his signature sunny ways are seen by many Canadians as inauthentic or worse.
Two polls released this week appear to confirm the worst fears of many Liberals. The Trudeau government’s sharp leftward turn, underscored by its alliance with the New Democratic Party, seems to have persuaded many progressive voters to shift their support to the real deal. Surveys from both Nanos and Leger showed the Conservatives in the lead with the Liberals losing ground to a resurgent NDP. That is a political scenario made in Tory heaven.
Typically, the Tories win when the progressive vote gets split between the Liberals and NDP. Mr. Trudeau has won three elections by minimizing this split, in part by persuading enough progressives that only the Liberals can block a Conservative victory. That strategy has worked particularly well in Quebec, where the Liberals won 35 seats in 2021.
If Mr. Trudeau remains leader, the Liberals are likely to resort to this strategy again in the next election. But it is far from clear if this tactic would be enough for them to eke out even a minority victory next time. After almost a decade of Trudeau rule, voters will be increasingly open to considering the alternatives. Centrist voters will look at Mr. Poilievre.
What they see will depend on whether the Conservative Leader succeeds between now and the next election in crafting a credible image as prime-minister-in-waiting. If he sticks to the script he used to win the Tory leadership, he will be a much easier adversary for the Liberals to define.
Mr. Poilievre began his leadership tenure by sending out a fundraising email to party members that did, indeed, stick with the script. “The Liberals want to stop me from becoming prime minister because they know I will get rid of their gatekeepers, defund the CBC, abolish mandates and make Canada the freest country on Earth so you can take back control of your life,” he said in the email.
The steps Mr. Poilievre takes in the coming weeks, both inside and outside the House of Commons, will determine whether he can move beyond such empty sound bites. He offered precious little in the way of concrete policy proposals during the leadership campaign. Based on his rhetoric, you would have to conclude that, as prime minister, he would undertake a purge of the country’s institutions so brutal and indiscriminate that Ottawa itself might cease to exist.
That will go over well with Freedom Convoy supporters for whom the middle ground does not exist. Unfortunately, their sense of frustration was stoked by a Liberal government that chose to politicize public health measures. But Mr. Poilievre cannot just count on convoy supporters to win the next election.
It appears to have taken Mr. Poilievre’s election as Tory Leader for the Liberals to recognize that the mandatory use of the ArriveCan app and COVID-19 vaccination requirements for international travellers had outlived their usefulness, even though most reasonable Canadians understood that months ago. Mr. Poilievre will claim credit, but the government’s move to scrap the measures is simply a victory for common sense, and science.
Rapid response has never been the Trudeau government’s strong suit. Except for its pandemic support programs – which were rolled out in record time and with remarkably few bureaucratic snafus, considering the unprecedented scale of the operation – everything this government does takes a very long time and yields underwhelming results. Big decisions get endlessly postponed. On foreign policy, Ottawa waits to see what other G7 and NATO countries do or say first.
It is hard to see anything changing if Mr. Trudeau sticks around. He, not Mr. Poilievre, could turn out to be the best weapon the Conservatives have got.