There are dumb political hills to die on, and then there’s the one Pierre Poilievre finds himself on right now. Once again, his Conservative Party of Canada voted against an updated free trade deal with Ukraine that has the unyielding support of every other party in Parliament. Why, with a double-digit lead in the polls, would Poilievre choose to put himself on the same side of an issue as Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson and Vladimir Putin?
It’s not like the Liberals sprung this on him by surprise. In November, the first time the renewed trade deal known as Bill C-57 came before the House of Commons, 109 Conservative MPs voted against it. Poilievre and his proxies claimed it was because the deal “imposed” a carbon tax on Ukraine, even though it contained no such language and Ukraine has had a price on carbon since 2011.
They apparently didn’t bother to educate themselves over the ensuing two months, since that was the same lame justification they offered up for their most recent vote against Ukraine — one that involved 116 Conservative MPs this time around.
This vote is perplexing for any number of reasons, not least because the initial free trade agreement between Canada and Ukraine was negotiated and signed by Stephen Harper’s government. Harper also led the effort to get Russia expelled from the G8 (now the G7) in 2014 after its first incursion into Ukraine.
Poilievre’s Conservatives are also voting against the clearly stated interests of their own constituents, since virtually all of the ridings with a high concentration of Ukrainian-Canadians are in Western Canada and represented by CPC MPs. With elected representatives like these, who needs enemies?
Unlike Trump and Carlson, I don’t think Poilievre or his senior caucus members enjoy running interference on behalf of Putin’s grotesque war effort. Even so, there’s been an alarming shift within the Conservative movement when it comes to support for Ukraine. As a new Angus Reid Institute poll shows, the proportion of CPC supporters who think we’re giving too much money to Ukraine has shot up from 19 per cent in May 2022 to 43 per cent as of last week. For a party that categorically rejects comparisons to Trump and his MAGA movement, this should be an unsettling data point.
Instead of being a sign of Poilievre’s broader geopolitical preferences, this series of votes against a trade deal with Ukraine offers a window into some of his key weaknesses as a leader. It probably began as a reflexive reaction to the inclusion of a line about supporting carbon pricing that he must have figured he couldn’t let pass. From there, his own worst instincts took over. As The Line’s Jen Gerson surmised, “Now they're just doubling and tripling down on the error because Pierre is pathologically incapable of walking anything back. Better to spin the reasoning of the original mistake and continue on than to cop to it.”
That’s why he keeps trying to pretend his party’s opposition is about the language around carbon pricing, even though Ukrainian officials have repeatedly tried to allay those concerns. “Canadians are against the carbon tax,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m against the carbon tax. Trudeau never should have tried to divide Canadians on Ukraine by forcing the carbon tax into that agreement.”
Again, no carbon tax is being forced into the agreement and Ukraine will have to significantly increase the carbon price it already has if it wants to join the European Union in the near future. But these facts have no purchase on Poilievre’s position here, it seems. “[Poilievre’s] pride is about 80 [per cent] of what's happening here,” Gerson wrote. “He won't take the L — he'll just keep pushing it through and slicing it up until it looks [like] something resembling a W.”
Every time Pierre Poilievre gets a chance to vote against a free trade deal for Ukraine, he takes it. What's behind his continued opposition to Canada's attempt to help Ukrainians, and what does it say about his fitness as a leader?
Is this the sort of behaviour we want in a potential prime minister? Conservatives have long been critical of Justin Trudeau for his willingness to apologize for things, but at least he’s shown the capacity for remorse and self-reflection. Poilievre seems biologically incapable of reversing course on anything, much less acknowledging that he’s made a mistake. That unwillingness to apologize might thrill his more ardent supporters, but it’s not exactly the hallmark of a great leader.
In politics, as in life, it’s OK to make mistakes, even if they’re as dumb as voting against a free trade deal with an ally under attack from a hostile autocracy. What’s not OK is continuing to push ahead with said mistake and trying to pretend it wasn’t one. That’s the stuff of petulant teenagers (and a certain former United States president), not future prime ministers. If Poilievre doesn’t want to be compared to Trump, he needs to stop doing such a convincing imitation of him.