If Justin Trudeau finds himself celebrating a political comeback for the ages at some point in 2025, he’ll probably look back to this past week as the point where it began. It won’t show up yet in the polls, which still have Trudeau’s Liberals well behind Pierre Poilievre’s Conservative Party of Canada. But for the first time in a long time, Trudeau and his team have a fighting chance.
That’s because, on two separate occasions, Poilievre exposed a weakness in his otherwise formidable political armour that they could — and should — exploit. On Tuesday, Poilievre and his caucus decided to vote against a free trade deal between Ukraine and Canada on second reading because, it seems, the deal includes a line indicating mutual support for carbon pricing and the need to avoid so-called “carbon leakage.” The CPC, for some reason, decided to interpret this as Canada “imposing” a carbon tax on Ukraine.
“He expects them to rebuild from a war with a devastating and crippling tax on their energy,” Poilievre said about Trudeau. “The Ukrainian farmers, he expects them to pay a carbon tax while they’re trying to feed their hungry people. This is cruel and, frankly, it is disgusting.”
Ukraine already has a carbon tax, though, and it’s been in place since 2011. More to the point, it will almost certainly have to increase that price on carbon if it wants to join the European Union. “On the path toward EU membership, Ukraine is developing policies to address climate change in line with EU regulation,” Ukrainian embassy spokesperson Marianna Kulava told the Globe and Mail.
This sort of allergic response to the very mention of carbon pricing might play well with Poilievre’s Prairie base, but it’s a much tougher sell for the more moderate central Canadian voters he needs to actually win an election. So, too, was his reflexive reaction to Wednesday’s fatal car crash at the U.S.-Canada border, and his subsequent refusal to back down after more facts came to light.
On Wednesday, he stood in the House of Commons and asked the prime minister about the “terrorist attack,” a depiction that seems to have been drawn from Fox News’ coverage of the incident. Poilievre tried to suggest that he’d gotten that information from a CTV News tweet, but CTV News noted that its reporters didn’t describe it in those terms until 2:39 p.m. Eastern — 15 minutes after he asked his question in the House.
The reasonable response here would be to acknowledge the error, apologize for jumping to conclusions, and move on from the incident. That’s what the Fox News reporter did. That’s even what far-right journalist cosplayer Keean Bexte did. But Poilievre? Well, backing down just isn’t his style, even when he’s clearly and demonstrably in the wrong.
Instead, he went on a meandering and mean-spirited tirade against a Canadian Press reporter who asked him about his comments, clearly channelling the same churlish energy he displayed in that now (in)famous video in the apple orchard. This was the Poilievre id on full display, stripped of the image makeover gurus and slick advertising campaigns. It was the Poilievre the Liberals ought to spend the next two years trying to draw out. And if Thursday’s press conference was any indication, it won’t be that difficult to do.
Yes, this latest confrontation with a journalist will surely delight his online army of angry young men. But as Postmedia columnist John Ivison noted, “He could lose this thing if he keeps behaving like this.” Indeed, as Abacus Data pollster David Coletto tweeted recently, the CPC’s vote — and lead — is not nearly as solid as it would like. “Conservatives have a very big lead. But it's not locked in and there's still plenty of opportunity for it to fall back to where it's been from 2019 to 2022.”
Pierre Poilievre may have a double-digit lead in the polls, but his preposterously petulant behaviour last week showed he's still his own biggest enemy — and why that lead could easily evaporate in the months to come.
Trudeau’s Liberals would still need a lot of things to break their way for this to happen. Chief among them is inflation continuing to cool, as the most recent data released on Tuesday showed, and interest rates starting to come down accordingly. There may yet be a recession in 2024, but by 2025, the economy may have already turned around. And, of course, there’s the ever-present threat — and perhaps reality — of another four years of Donald Trump south of the border.
But Poilievre’s personality might be their real ace in the hole. His indifference to nuance and restraint, his refusal to apologize for mistakes, and his irresistible attraction to his own pre-existing biases aren’t good looks for a potential prime minister. We saw that on full display this week. Now it’s up to Trudeau, who does his best work as a political counterpuncher, to get off the ropes and start landing a few blows.