It was Hollywood that romanticized the filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In that 1939 film, a rookie U.S. senator played by Jimmy Stewart, faced with politicians’ corrupt plans to wheedle land from boy scouts, holds the Senate floor by speaking nearly 24 hours till his shamed colleagues give in.
There were filibusters before then, in Canada and elsewhere, dating back to ancient Rome, but now there is a heroic connotation to the talk-till-you-drop filibuster. When New Democrat MP David Christopherson spoke for eight hours in 2014 to try to block an electoral reform bill, he was treated to fawning accolades.
Perhaps that reaction was something that the minister who was responsible for that elections bill – Pierre Poilievre – remembered. This week, Mr. Poilievre stepped out to tell reporters that he would personally talk for hours to filibuster the Liberal government’s budget implementation bill.
And now, the Conservative Leader’s speech was treated as an event. So much so that nobody really remarked that there was no actual filibuster involved.
Indeed, by the time Mr. Poilievre suggested on Wednesday that he would talk as long as it takes to stop the budget bill, he already knew he wouldn’t be able to speak past midnight, and it wouldn’t do anything to block the legislation. The Liberals, with the support of the NDP, had passed a motion to end debate on the budget bill at midnight.
The Conservatives’ insistence earlier in the week that they would fight the bill with every tool in the book was never going anywhere. The book was so short the budget bill was passed on Thursday.
But no matter. This wasn’t a real filibuster. It was a Hollywood filibuster. And it worked.
At least, Mr. Poilievre succeeded in taking the stage and turning the public’s attention back to the issue that has worked best for him: inflation and the average Canadian’s struggles to make ends meet.
Mr. Poilievre’s Conservatives had ceded some ground on economic matters in recent months.
The Liberals have been touting their green-tech policies and promising jobs, and though the price tag for those politics is massive, including a $13-billion subsidy for a Volkswagen battery plant, Mr. Poilievre has been afraid of opposing them..
The Conservatives have focused in recent weeks on allegations the Liberals ignored Chinese foreign interference, but with Parliament set to break for the summer in late June, they clearly want to focus on everyday pocket-book issues.
Mr. Poilievre played them up in his faux-filibuster speech by stressing the struggles of families trying to make ends meet: “I will speak for the families who cannot speak for themselves,” he said.
There was a lot of complaint from the Conservative Leader that Liberal government spending causes inflation, which leads to higher mortgage rates which will lead to disaster. He pointed to the Bank of Canada’s latest interest-rate increase and predicted a financial crisis he blamed on the government. But it was a three-and-a-half hour speech, so there was mention of Winston Churchill and Henry VIII, too.
Mr. Poilievre’s economic-policy shortcuts, and the suggestion that cutting deficits now would spare a lot of indebted Canadians from mortgage defaults, deserve more than a dollop of skepticism as policy. But the real benefit of his filibuster stunt was simply that it allowed him to bring the spotlight back to the tough times a lot of Canadians are facing.
The demands he made – calling on the government to set a timetable for balancing the budget and to drop future carbon-levy increases – were obviously going to be rejected by the Liberal government.
And the Conservative Leader’s filibuster follow-up on Thursday – offering to have his caucus members work through the summer to re-write the budget and cut the deficit – was just a twist on an old trick opposition parties play every June. The Official Opposition party – whichever party it happens to be – invariably insists it is ready to work in the Commons through the summer, but then typically agrees to wrap up a day or two early.
The obvious weakness in Mr. Poilievre’s offer to re-write the budget is that he has never proposed substantial, specific cuts. He didn’t suggest any cuts in his three-and-a-half-hour speech, either.
But those details won’t deter Mr. Poilievre. He doesn’t really want to rewrite Liberal budgets this summer; he wants to spend the summer talking about budget deficits and inflation. He wanted to draw the spotlight back to his arguments about rising prices and interest rates. And a faux filibuster helped him do it.