People keep trying to get a read on where Pierre Poilievre would take the Conservative Party. Would he, as some fear and others hope, position it on the far right – fiscally severe, socially intolerant and so on?
Or is he, as others argue, more of a mainstream conservative than his hard-line rhetoric would suggest – witness his refusal to legislate on abortion, or his proposals to make it easier for new immigrants to have their credentials recognized in Canada.
Is he a populist, or a more traditional economic conservative? Will he pivot toward the centre, in the usual fashion, once the leadership race is out of the way? Or is he, as still others speculate, putting together a new coalition, drawing from both the far right and the far left – people who do not usually vote?
I think this whole discussion is a mistake. Mr. Poilievre is not properly understood as an ideological phenomenon. There is no such thing as Poilievrism. Nothing in his long career in politics, or in this campaign, suggests anything in the way of a coherent philosophy of government. Neither is that the basis of his appeal.
He made his name, after all, as Stephen Harper’s most eager attack dog, the backbencher willing to say and do whatever his master ordered, no matter how nasty. His most notable achievement, in his brief time as a junior cabinet minister, was the sinisterly misnamed Fair Elections Act. Guided by no apparent principle but a desire to tilt the electoral odds in the Tories’ favour, it caused a massive political firestorm and had to be substantially redrafted.
His campaign for leader has been singularly lacking in concrete policy proposals, beyond a vague promise to “give you back control of your life” – which turns out to mean abolishing COVID-19 vaccine mandates and little else – and hostility to various unnamed “gatekeepers.” Oh, and he’d “fire” the Bank of Canada governor, though that is not actually something a prime minister has the power to do.
Consider, by way of comparison, the detailed and comprehensive plan his predecessor, Erin O’Toole, ran for leader on in 2020: 50 pages filled with specific proposals (“convert the existing Child Care Expense deduction to a refundable tax credit”) and broad statements of conservative principle.
What has Mr. Poilievre spent the current campaign talking about? The benefits of crypto currencies as a way of “opting out” of inflation; the heroism of the convoyards who took over downtown Ottawa earlier this year; accusations that the government is “spying on you everywhere” (a consultant’s report used anonymized cellphone data to track population movements); the evils of the World Economic Forum.
What, specifically, has he promised to do in government? He’d make federal infrastructure grants to cities conditional on approving new housing development. He’d withhold a part of federal research grants from universities that did not do enough to protect free speech on campus. He’d repeal Bill C-11, Liberal legislation that would regulate online streaming services like broadcasters. He’d invoke the notwithstanding clause to restore consecutive sentences for mass murderers. That’s about it.
The merits of each of these may be debated. But good or bad, they do not add up to anything resembling a program of government. They are rather to appeal to the paranoid and the disaffected – in particular, those who are convinced vaccine mandates are part of a broader plot, orchestrated by the WEF, to control the world’s population.
Why, for example, has Mr. Poilievre gone to such peculiar pains in the course of the campaign to promise he would prevent the Bank of Canada from issuing its own digital currency – something it has not even said it has planned? Because, to the online conspiracy theorists he is courting, that is the end game of the “globalist” scheme of world domination: a currency that could supposedly be used to monitor your every transaction.
There’s a word for this sort of thing. It isn’t radicalism. It’s extremism. Radicalism implies a readiness to break sharply with current practice, to make sweeping changes in policy. As such it is neither good nor bad: Sometimes radical change is advisable; most times it isn’t.
Medicare was a radical idea in its time. So was free trade. An idea might be radical, but so long as it has been well thought out – so long as its proponents have been persuaded by the evidence, and could be persuaded the other way in the face of contrary evidence; so long as they have anticipated the objections and addressed any needed exceptions – it can look forward to becoming part of the political mainstream.
But extremism is something else. It is not rooted in evidence, but in feeling. It makes no allowance for compromise or exceptions. It does not attempt to persuade but to intimidate. Its purpose is not to join the mainstream, but to disrupt it. It is implicitly authoritarian, even if it never gets anywhere near power.
Whether or not Mr. Poilievre is personally an extremist, his campaign is aimed squarely at attracting support from extremists. His followers do not support him because of what he is for, or what he would do in government. They only know what, and who, he is against, and – perhaps even more important – who is against him.
It would not matter to them if, on taking power, he pursued policies that were diametrically opposed to those few he has proposed as a candidate – any more than they were upset by Mr. Harper’s policy reversals. It isn’t about policy, for them or for him. It’s about attitude. It’s about taking the fight to the enemy.
Could he pivot, then, after the leadership race? In a sense, yes, and in a sense, no. I can imagine him adopting virtually any policy as leader if he thought it expedient. But that’s not really a pivot: That would require some initial position to pivot from. On the other hand, it’s harder to pivot from the sorts of associations he has made along the way. How do you “pivot” from hanging out with hostage-takers and amping conspiracy theorists?
Poor judgment, moral recklessness, bottomless opportunism: These aren’t policy positions, something you can moderate or explain away or wriggle out of. They’re attributes. They stick. That is increasingly the dividing line in American politics – not left versus right, but character and judgment versus their opposites. The party that is about to elect Mr. Poilievre – the party that, with the help of hundreds of thousands of new recruits, he has done much to create – looks likely to entrench the same cleavage in Canada.
This may be, in the end, where he would take the Conservative Party: not far right, but far out.
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