When Stephen Harper first appeared in the House of Commons as opposition leader in 2002, prime minister Jean Chrétien offered his congratulations, adding: “I want the new leader of the Opposition to have many, many years to learn how to do the job, on the job.”
Mr. Harper, in reply, said he was only four years old when Mr. Chrétien entered the House, and even then he remembered telling his mother: “Someone has to do something to stop that guy.”
On Thursday, Pierre Poilievre confronted Justin Trudeau for the first time as Leader of the Official Opposition. The Conservative Leader said “it is good to see the Prime Minister here, visiting Canada, to fill up the gas on his private jet.” (Mr. Trudeau was in Britain for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth and in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. On Saturday he flies to Japan to attend the funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.) Mr. Poilievre then launched into a sharp attack on Liberal increases in carbon and payroll taxes, even as inflation continues to soar.
Having offered perfunctory congratulations, Mr. Trudeau soon went after Mr. Poilievre. “If Canadians had followed the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and invested in volatile cryptocurrencies in an attempt to opt out of inflation, they would have lost half of their savings.”
We live in harsher times.
Mr. Poilievre displays a level of confidence, command and control in debate that both of his predecessors, Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer, noticeably lacked. He speaks largely without notes, keeps his questions focused, presses his points relentlessly.
But after seven years as PM, Mr. Trudeau is every bit his equal, parrying the Conservative Leader’s thrusts and confidently promoting the Liberal record. These two will be formidable opponents in the House.
Mr. Poilievre has been targeting inflation – or Justinflation, as he likes to call it – almost since the pandemic began. We can debate the merits of the economic supports that governments put in place when the pandemic arrived – to my mind, they saved the day – and whether those supports should have been wound down sooner.
But what matters politically is that people are hurting, and Mr. Poilievre has been pounding the inflation issue for years. High inflation, rising interest rates, a possible recession – these are not afflictions that a government this long in the tooth can easily survive.
But Mr. Trudeau has cards of his own to play: the cryptocurrency nonsense, Mr. Poilievre’s support for the protesters who occupied Ottawa, his tendency to play footsie with conspiracy theories.
The Prime Minister clearly believes that Mr. Poilievre is not simply a political opponent, but a threat to peace, order and good Liberal government. He sees the Conservative Leader as a wrecker. He aims to stop him. Historical precedent suggests he will fail.
Louis St. Laurent, having resolved to step down after his 1953 election victory, changed his mind or had it changed for him by C.D. Howe, his Minister of Everything, who vowed the elderly but popular Uncle Louis would lead the party into a fourth campaign “even if we have to run him stuffed.” Mr. St. Laurent went down to defeat at the hands of Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker in 1957.
After the 1974 election, Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau should probably have stepped aside in favour of finance minister John Turner. Instead, Mr. Trudeau decided to fight a fourth campaign, against Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark. He lost. (His political resurrection months later is a different story.)
In June, 2014, Ray Novak, Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, confronted the Conservative prime minister with a choice: either declare now that he was staying to fight a fourth election, or step aside for someone else. Mr. Harper, who could not abide the thought of another Trudeau leading the country, decided to stay and fight. He shouldn’t have.
Mr. Trudeau must know the odds are against him. Yet he must also believe that Mr. Poilievre is a threat to the country. He may have convinced himself that he and no one else can stop the new Conservative Leader from becoming prime minister.
He may be right. And if he’s wrong, he won’t be the first politician to make that mistake.