Here are some of the things certain candidates for Conservative leader think, or want Conservative voters to think, threaten Canada and Canadians.
Candidate Pierre Poilievre warns his followers that the government of Canada “has been spying on you everywhere. They’ve been following you to the pharmacy, to your family visits, even to your beer runs.”
The government hasn’t been doing anything of the kind, of course: A private company prepared a report to the Public Health Agency of Canada on population movements during the pandemic, using anonymous, aggregated cellphone data. The data allow researchers to count how many people visited a pharmacy or a beer store, not which people did; still less are individuals followed from place to place.
But Mr. Poilievre knows his followers don’t know this, and is quite content to mislead them. Just as he is when he claims he opposes allowing the Bank of Canada to issue a digital version of the dollar because the government would use the data generated thereby to “crack down” on its “political enemies.”
The point isn’t that such data couldn’t be misused in this way. The point is that Mr. Poilievre asserts, without evidence, that it is happening now, and assumes, without evidence, that worse will happen in the future – not as a possibility to be guarded against, but as an inevitability. This is the very definition of fear-mongering. Or, indeed, conspiracy theory. It encourages not prudent skepticism of government’s capacity, but baseless paranoia about government intentions.
But this is statesmanship itself next to the fears he and others have been spreading about the World Economic Forum, which sponsors an annual gathering of business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland, that is the grand obsession of conspiracy theorists everywhere.
Mr. Poilievre hasn’t come right out and said what he thinks the WEF is up to (unlike former Conservative leadership candidate Derek Sloan, now the leader of the Ontario Party, who earlier this month accused the organization’s leaders of plotting to put microchips in “our bodies and our heads”), but he has made a point of saying that he will ban any member of his cabinet from attending its meetings – though several members of Stephen Harper’s cabinet did, including Mr. Harper himself.
Then there’s candidate Leslyn Lewis, whose particular fear is the World Health Organization, or more precisely a package of amendments to its International Health Regulations put forward earlier this year by the United States. The amendments seem chiefly aimed at preventing the sort of information vacuum that hampered efforts to contain the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak, notably stemming from China’s refusal to level with the world about what it had on its hands – but also abetted by the WHO’s own credulousness.
Thus, a critical amendment would require the WHO, should it find there is a public-health emergency “of international concern,” and having first offered assistance to the affected country, to share information with other countries about it, even if the first country objects. (Until now it had been left to the WHO’s discretion.) In conspiracy circles this has been cooked up into an open-ended power for the WHO to force countries into lockdown, take over their health care systems, even, in Ms. Lewis’s formulation, suspend their constitutions.
Where does one begin? The WHO does not have the power to dictate policies to member states. No country would ever agree to give it that power, let alone all 194 member states at once. And of all those countries, the least likely to agree to any such transfer of national sovereignty, let alone propose it, is the United States: the country that, for example, refuses to this day to participate in the International Criminal Court. The only way it could be done even in theory would be by passing the necessary enabling legislation through each country’s legislature, not by simply ratifying an amendment to a regulation.
We’ve been this way before. Remember the Global Compact for Migration? That anodyne collection of best-efforts promises of international co-operation in dealing with the world’s refugees was the subject of an earlier Conservative panic attack. Supposedly we would be permanently surrendering control of our borders to United Nations bureaucrats. It hasn’t happened, because that’s not actually how the world works.
Neither did Motion 103, a non-binding resolution of the House directing that a committee hold hearings on Islamophobia, lead to a ban on criticism of Islam, as still another Conservative fear campaign had claimed. Probably some of its proponents understood this at the time, but lots of their supporters didn’t.
And so it continues. Vaccine mandates become “vaccine vendettas.” Carbon pricing is equated with Chinese-style “social credit” scores. The Bank of Canada’s purchases of government bonds in the middle of the sharpest economic contraction since the Great Depression are depicted as if they were directly bankrolling the Liberal Party.
This cynical act is sometimes dressed up as “sticking up for the little guy” or “taking on the elites.” It is not. It is exploitation, pure and simple, shaking down the gullible for money and votes. It’s a con as old as politics. Before Mr. Poilievre can promise his audience to “give you back control over your lives,” he has to first persuade them that control has been taken away from them – and that he alone has the power to give it back. Or rather, that they should give him that power.
Populism has deep roots in the Conservative Party, at least since John Diefenbaker gathered the disparate populist movements that had sprung up in the West under the Progressive Conservative banner. As the party of the “outs,” those who for one reason or another were excluded from the Liberal power consensus, it has always tended to attract its share of cranks – not just populists but crackpots.
What’s different today? Three things. One, the targets of populist wrath are increasingly external to Canada: bodies like the WEF or the WHO, whose remoteness from any actual role in controlling our lives only makes them seem more darkly potent, to those primed to believe it.
Two, the “outs” no longer simply reject a particular political narrative, but increasingly science, and reason, and knowledge: the anti-expertise, anti-authority rages of people who have been “doing their own research.”
And three, the crackpopulists used to be consigned to the party’s margins. Now they are contending to lead it.
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