After an annual gathering of conservatives ended Friday, the question on everyone's mind is can Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre build a coalition that can topple Justin Trudeau’s Liberals?
In a keynote speech Thursday evening at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa for the annual Canada Strong and Free Networking conference, Poilievre put Trudeau squarely in the crosshairs of his populist message.
“You know we had a deal in this country, didn't we? You work hard, follow the law, you get a good house, in a good, safe neighbourhood, you make a good living and a great life,” Poilievre said. “But that deal, just like everything else after eight years in Justin Trudeau's Canada, is broken.”
Poilievre pointed to 35-year-olds living in their parents’ basements, single mothers cutting back on meals for their kids and senior citizens choosing between “eating and heating” because of inflation, which he linked to the federal carbon tax.
Then he turned a criticism most often levelled at him against his Liberal opponent. “We're more divided than ever, seemingly by design of a prime minister who wants to turn citizen against citizen,” Poilievre said.
Despite inflation plaguing economies across the world, Poilievre blamed Trudeau for the economic challenges of the day. Regardless of the cause of global inflation, Poilievre’s messaging caters to a population upset with perceived “Liberal elites.”
Inflation, Poilievre warns, is a “gigantic wealth transfer from the have-nots to the have-yachts.” It’s “a smaller and smaller group of people (getting) richer and richer, feasting off the state, and not by their own labour and their own work.”
University of Prince Edward Island political science professor Don Desserud told Canada’s National Observer all political parties would agree affordability and inflation must be addressed but said politicians tapping into that type of anger need to be careful.
Last year’s trucker convoy was the tip of the iceberg for the segment of the population fed up and frustrated by the political system, he said.
The question on everyone's mind is: Can Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre build a coalition that can topple Justin Trudeau’s Liberals? Architects of the Conservative movement weigh in on how he might do it. #cdnpoli
That frustration “is far more widespread than the leaders of the parties, with the exception of Pierre Poilievre, realize,” he said. “My concern with Poilievre is that he's cagey enough to understand it's there, but does he know what the consequences would be if that becomes a huge movement and he's swept along with it?”
Desserud said the Conservatives realize lots of people are tired of “compromise politics.” But he finds it worrisome that voters are increasingly turning to leaders who don’t back down.
“We're living in incredibly precarious times, these are dangerous times,” he said. “Climate (change) is dangerous. We had (post-tropical storm) Fiona last year, we had the pandemic, we have the war in Ukraine, which is almost a proxy World War at this point.
“There's a lot of people that are actually quite frightened by all the things that are going on, and when you see politicians who keep talking about how we just need to work together, they think, ‘OK, are you actually going to be able to defend me if things really go badly?’”
Earlier in the week, former prime minister Stephen Harper threw his support behind Poilievre, telling attendees it was time for a “Conservative renaissance.” Harper drew a straight line between his own efforts and those of fellow conservative architect Preston Manning’s work with the Reform Party to the work now before Poilievre to build a broad base of support across the country.
In an interview with Canada’s National Observer, Manning outlined what he hopes will be the party’s grand vision to unite the competing right-wing forces across the country. In Manning’s view, Conservatives can find a winning electoral formula by marrying a pan-Canadian vision with the recognition of a growing divide between urban and rural voters.
His pan-Canadian vision would see the Conservative Party formally recognize regional differences in the country to pave the road for natural resource extraction in all regions. He said Atlantic Canada conservatives attach more importance to tradition than others, while the Prairies’ are more motivated by populist elements. Ontario’s conservatives — the “business crowd” — have “economic passions,” Manning says, while Quebec has nationalist tendencies that must be acknowledged.
The federal Conservative Party should be prepared to approach each region and say, “What’s your particular concern?” and “say to each of them, the price of you getting your distinctive aspiration and concern dealt with by a federal party is your willingness to accept when we do something for every other region.”
For Manning, this recognition of unique regional differences is “unifying” and allows Conservatives to tailor their campaign messaging to each region. Key to that messaging, Manning says, is a relentless focus on natural resources.
What sets Canada apart from other countries, in Manning’s view, is the massive land mass that means an economy can be built with natural resources in every region. He pointed to agriculture, energy, mining, fisheries and forestry, and said Conservatives should stress that these are not sunset industries, which is how “the Liberals treat them,” but rather the “fundamental building blocks of the Canadian economy.”
Manning said one challenge will be urban voters who are increasingly disconnected from natural resource extraction. But he suggested growing awareness about food supply chains may be a way to draw those voters in as people in cities learn more about where their food comes from.
Queen’s University political studies professor Jonathan Rose told Canada’s National Observer the Conservative Party “has always been an awkward coalition of different and diverse interests.”
“While it is clear that Poilievre is speaking to the populists, what he will need to do is make a compelling argument to the urban voter while not alienating the same populist,” he said, calling it “no small feat.”
Desserud called Manning’s analysis of the political landscape a “nice vision,” but when the rubber meets the road, it’s likely to fall apart because “the regions will see the other regions as getting something they should have had, or that they are contributing more than their fair share.”
“If that was a possibility that each region believed they were all gaining, I think he'd have a very powerful message, and a political party that was able to convince people of that, I think it would certainly resonate,” he said. “The politics of it is such that if we all get along, we'll all prosper, is a great sentiment, and of course is true, but politics is such that invariably it does not work that way, and somebody always sees somebody else getting more than they deserve.”