Adam Zivo: The timing was right for Pierre Poilievre’s populism

Adam Zivo: The timing was right for Pierre Poilievre’s populism

His populism is at times messy but is entirely necessary

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Publishing date:

Sep 12, 2022  •  September 15, 2022  •  4 minute read  •  102 Comments

Newly elected Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks at the Conservative Party of Canada leadership vote, in Ottawa, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.
Newly elected Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks at the Conservative Party of Canada leadership vote, in Ottawa, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. Photo by Sean Kilpatrick /The Canadian Press

Pierre Poilievre became the new leader of the Conservative party on Saturday, sweeping the contest with 68 per cent of the vote. Poilievre’s victory is good for Canada — his disruptive politics, while not always pretty, are sorely needed in a country where the seldom-challenged status quo has left too many Canadians behind.

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Voters are frustrated. Skyrocketing prices have locked young and new Canadians out of the housing market, trapping them in a quasi-feudal system where generational wealth is a prerequisite for homeownership.

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Ballooning inflation, coupled with longer-term increases in the cost of living, is eroding the buying power of average Canadians with salary-based incomes, while the wealthy feast upon bloating investments and dividends. The current government has, perplexingly, decided that firehosing more money into the economy will solve this problem.

Immigrant professionals — doctors, engineers and the like — continue to work in jobs beneath their skill levels (i.e. driving Ubers), because, despite decades of promises, expedited pathways haven’t been built to recognize their foreign credentials.

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When those who have been left behind, culturally or economically, express their desperate anger, they are smeared and condescended to by well-to-do technocrats.

Given the situation, is it any wonder that Canada has become more open to populism lately?

Someone needs to address these inequalities and give voice to Canadians’ seething frustration — which is what Poilievre has done. In the process, he is forging an unusual coalition of voters that testifies to the diverse appeal of his politics.

Is it any wonder Canada has become more populist lately?

For example, over the past year, an astonishing number of young Canadians have been turning towards the Conservative party. Younger Canadians, millennials in particular, have been crushed beneath decades of hostile policy-making that has ignored, if not actively opposed, their interests. And so, for the first time since the 1980s, a plurality (but not majority) of voters under 30 are prepared to back the populist-minded Tories.

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Some believe that populism is inherently harmful. That’s a reasonable concern, because on many occasions populism has been a destructive force. But populism demonstrably has the potential to be constructive (on both the left and right) — Roosevelt and Reagan are key examples.

The best forms of populism tackle economic injustice rather than stoking racial resentment. That’s why it matters that Poilievre’s populism has been noticeably attentive to how elitism harms Canadians of all colours and creeds — injustice over homeownership, for example, has consistently been framed as an issue that harms immigrants.

To put it another way: while European right-wing populism scorns ethnic immigration (see France), Poilievre’s populism wants to ensure that immigrants can work in their chosen professions and buy homes.

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Economic-minded populism has been historically championed by the left, but, in Canada, progressive politicians have ceded that ground, having preoccupied themselves with placating white-collar college graduates and waging cultural warfare at the expense of kitchen-table issues.

Poilievre merely swooped in and filled this gap. It’s a prudent strategy that already worked in Ontario, where Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government fostered an unexpected alliance with private-sector unions.

However, even if Poilievre’s populism isn’t xenophobic, it still has its faults. Not all attacks against perceived elitism are equally legitimate, and Poilievre’s crusade against the Bank of Canada and Supreme Court risk undermining their overall legitimacy. Challenging the status quo doesn’t justify weakening our government’s core institutions.

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Poilievre’s tone has also often been too belligerent and divisive. This certainly plays well with his base and is a huge part of his appeal, but, should Poilievre hope to become prime minister, he will need to learn how to be more diplomatic so that he can credibly represent all Canadians, not just his main supporters.

To his credit, Poilievre’s overwhelming victory in the Conservative race shows that concerns about divisiveness may be overblown. His political opponents warned that he would tear the Conservative party apart, but the results from Saturday’s election suggest that, on the contrary, he is a great unifier — in all regions of the country, voters swarmed to him.

But it is one thing to unify your party and another to unify the entire country.

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It is one thing to unify your party and another to unify the entire country

Poilievre’s post-election victory speech was promising, as it demonstrated a more diplomatic approach to governance. Rather than gloat or berate, Poilievre thanked his defeated opponents for their contributions to Canadian politics. This included kind words for Jean Charest, with whom Poilievre had been viciously feuding for months.

In a similar spirit, Poilievre’s speech he avoided some of his more controversial rhetoric and instead focussed on economic issues, such as building housing, tackling affordability, unleashing the energy economy and getting taxes under control.

Should Poilievre maintain this more diplomatic approach, while also maintaining the integrity of his populist message, his chances of winning a general election are high.

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Whether he becomes prime minister or not, Poilievre has already, at the very least, forced his opponents to reconsider their complacency on key issues.

The Liberals, for example, may be forced to finally take housing seriously and invest in reforms that substantially boost housing supply. The NDP might finally re-evaluate its relationship with the working class and realize that blue-collar Canadians care about financial stability much more than language policing and TikTok politics.

Poilievre’s populism has its risks, but they are much less dramatic than his critics believe. Canada cannot afford to maintain a sclerotic status quo that denies so many people the opportunity to thrive. If Poilievre can shake things up, then great.

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