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Decoding the freedom-loving firebrand who wants to be Canada's next PM

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OTTAWA, Ont. — Canada’s Conservatives are desperate for a leader who can unite the right and stitch together a winning voter coalition. The race is now on to find that unicorn to take on Justin Trudeau.

Canada’s soul-searching conservative movement is struggling against a stubborn public image as a divided party that has lost three elections in a row — a permanent center-right opposition incapable of beating the Liberals.

The next leader needs to have it all: red meat for the party base, suburban-friendly ideas and charisma to match Prime Minister Trudeau — or whoever follows in his footsteps.

A growing movement of grassroots Conservatives are convinced they’ve found their guy in Pierre Poilievre.

He may be young, at just 42, but he’s no rookie. The seven-term MP and former Cabinet minister launched his campaign shortly after the party caucus dumped Erin O’Toole on Groundhog Day, as truckers settled in for the long haul all over downtown Ottawa.

He’s now drawing larger crowds than even Stephen Harper, the party’s founding father, managed when he was elected the revamped party’s first leader in 2004.

Poilievre is part happy warrior and part angsty firebrand. He preaches freedom to crowds of hundreds, an impressive feat for the early days of a Canadian party leadership campaign, from pulpits in suburban convention centers and rural fairgrounds across Canada.

He’s all about finding and eliminating gatekeepers — a swamp of government bureaucrats, politicians and special interests who get in the way of people who want to build things, live the lives they want to live and make something of themselves.

His stump speech isn’t subtle. He rails against government overreach, bloated bureaucracies and corrupt politicians. He promises to make Canada the “freest country on Earth.” He implores everyone within earshot to buy a Conservative membership.

That final appeal is arguably the most important part of any speech he delivers, because members elect leaders — and he needs all the support he can get.

Garry Keller, a vice president at StrategyCorp and longtime chief of staff to Poilievre ally and former Cabinet minister John Baird, said the “first principle” of any leadership campaign is to sell memberships to supporters who will come out to vote — both lapsed members and those who are politically homeless but like what they hear.

Poilievre kicks up controversy wherever he goes with blunt rhetoric and policy proposals that would dismantle government bureaucracy. But that’s the point. “It’s not rocket science, but that first principle seems to be lost on a lot of the chattering classes and political commentariat,” said Keller.

Winning the leadership on Sept. 10 is only half the battle, of course. Next up is winning the country with the same ideas, or some version of them that won’t let down his growing fan base but still win all the swing ridings that can turn an election.

POLITICO recorded a recent Poilievre rally in suburban Ottawa and took it to party strategists and policy wonks to decode.

Vaccine mandates

What he said: “There was a lady in New Brunswick who got a phone call that her mother was suddenly on her deathbed in Ontario, but she couldn’t get on a plane to fly and see her. And so she had to drive through the freezing rain because of a personal medical decision required because of her own medical history, and risked her life to make it just in time to say goodbye. Ladies and gentlemen, this is no longer about medical science. Justin Trudeau’s actions on this have been nothing but political science.”

What they heard: This government doesn’t want to end Covid, because they want to control you and everyone you love.

Keller remembers it wasn’t so long ago that Trudeau openly opposed vaccine mandates.

Early last summer, the prime minister acknowledged that people with allergies, immunocompromised conditions or religious convictions shouldn’t be forced to get the shot. More recently, Trudeau’s rhetoric lost much of that nuance — especially when the trucker convoy trundled toward Ottawa and the prime minister dismissed them as a “small fringe minority.”

Enter Poilievre, whose crowd in Ottawa ate up his advocacy for truckers who felt attacked by their government. “He’s saying he understands the frustration of those Canadians who didn’t get vaccinated for whatever reason,” said Keller. “And he doesn’t disrespect them for the choices that they made.”

Expert analysis: Poilievre only occasionally distinguishes between vaccine mandates imposed by the federal government and those enforced at the provincial level. When patrons were forced to show proof of vaccination before entering a variety of public places in their day-to-day lives, those were mostly in place thanks to provinces.

The federal government still enforces certain proof of vaccination rules. Anyone who boards an airplane or train in Canada must show a certificate. Anyone entering Canada must also present proof. But the feds are starting to relax rules: fully vaccinated travelers are no longer required to show a negative Covid test at the border.

Poilievre has embraced protesters opposed to a rule imposed at both American and Canadian border crossings that forces non-essential workers, including truckers, to be fully vaccinated. As truckers settled into an occupation of downtown Ottawa streets, Canada’s largest trucking company said the border mandates were “not an issue at all” because most of their drivers were vaccinated.

Love for oil and gas

What he said: “In New Brunswick, they are bringing in about 130,000 barrels of overseas oil. Every day in Canada. That’s almost a million barrels a week. Newfoundland, right nearby, is proposing to expand its production by 400,000 barrels a day. In other words, if we can get the regulatory gatekeepers out of the way, the Newfoundlanders could produce enough oil to supply the New Brunswick refineries and then have 200,000 extra barrels leftover to ship off overseas to break the foreign dependence on dictators, to replace dollars for dictators with paychecks for our people.”

What they heard: Down with the Liberal regulatory state. Down with Russian oil and gas. Drill, baby, drill.

What’s really going on: Poilievre’s argument is fodder for supporters of the oil and gas sector, but mismatched timelines and refining processes complicate his proposal.

Atlantic Canada imports overseas oil partly because there are no crude oil pipelines built through Quebec and Ontario to connect the east coast with Alberta, which has more oil than it knows what to do with. Transport by rail is limited which is why the region imports products from overseas.

The Rock wants to double oil output, and high prices are certainly an incentive to do so, but with production forecast to peak in 2032 in Canada, tapering demand doesn’t strengthen the long-term business case for more drilling.

When Poilievre proposed 200,000 hypothetical extra barrels to ship overseas “to break the foreign dependence on dictators” — that’s more or less the actual plan Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced last month.

Both Canada and the United States are upping production to increase the availability of oil to go to international markets to alleviate energy security concerns in European countries keen to wean off Russian oil and gas.

Canada’s industry is expected to increase oil and gas production by up to 300,000 barrels per day by the end of the year in response to the global energy crunch provoked by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Because Canada doesn’t have an export facility, Canadian products need to go through the states to the U.S. Gulf to get to Europe. Any pitches to ship oil from the Rock to Europe also runs against another challenge: Not all refineries on the continent are equipped to process heavy crude, which constitutes half of what Newfoundland and Labrador produces.

Carbon tax

What he said: “For Justin Trudeau everything’s about timing. He picks exactly this moment, when we have 30-year highs for inflation and record-smashing gas prices, to hit Canadians another time with another tax increase. … Now let’s be clear. Higher gas prices are not a byproduct or an indirect consequence of the carbon tax. They are the purpose — the stated purpose — of the carbon tax.”

What they heard: Those high gas prices you’re paying aren’t a coincidence, or due to global events beyond our control — it’s been Trudeau’s plan all along.

Former Conservative leadership candidate Rudy Husny tells POLITICO that Poilievre’s focus on the carbon tax hits a couple of important notes as he tries to connect with party members.

In one way, Husny said Poilievre’s vow to scrap the carbon tax demonstrates he’s a “principled Conservative” to members who may have felt betrayed by former leader O’Toole’s climate policy “flip-flop.” O’Toole surprised many Conservatives by releasing a carbon-pricing plan after winning a leadership race during which he pledged to kill Trudeau’s program.

But Poilievre isn’t interested — at least for right now — in centrist voters who hate the pain at the pump but also worry about climate change. Husny said Poilievre’s stance draws a clear “red line” between himself and some of his main rivals who support carbon pricing, like Jean Charest and Patrick Brown.

Poilievre has also been leaning into the tax as a cost of living issue at a time of white-hot inflation.

“His goal … is really to relate to Canadians,” said Husny, who was a senior official in the Harper government. “He needs to show that he understands them, he understands their issues and their concerns, and that he’s on their side and he has their backs.”

Expert analysis: The federal carbon tax has helped lift energy prices in provinces without their own pricing program. But the federal government, which imposes carbon pricing in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, has moved to offset the costs by distributing a quarterly benefit to households.

Inflation — and pump prices — are soaring for a number of reasons. The factors include global supply chain bottlenecks and, more recently, the economic fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The carbon tax, which is meant to deter consumption, has also played a role.

Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem gave MPs a sense last month of just how much the federal carbon pricing regime has fed into Canada’s price growth.

Macklem told members of the finance committee in a letter, which was obtained by Global News, that January’s inflation reading of 5.1 percent would have been 4.7 percent if the pollution charge had been removed from the prices for gasoline, natural gas and fuel oil.

Bank of Canada

What he said: “Think of this: We have 5.7 percent inflation. If that were to repeat itself for just five years, you would lose almost a third of your paycheck’s purchasing power. If your boss were to walk up to you and say he was cutting your paycheck by a third, you’d say take this job and shove it. But when Justin Trudeau does it to you, he expects you to just shut up and pay out. And that’s exactly what they have done.”

“My government is going to take exactly the opposite direction. We are going to reassert the Bank of Canada’s traditional mandate which is to keep inflation low and protect the purchasing power of our money.”

What they heard: Ottawa bureaucrats and paper-pushers are stealing your paycheck.

Poilievre is trying to show party members, and Canadians more broadly, that he’s fighting for them, Husny said. The goal of any leadership contestant’s message is to attract new members to the party who will vote for them and to win the support of existing card carriers.

In the process, politicians often face the challenge of taking a complex issue, like inflation or macroeconomics, and presenting it in a way so that everyone understands it, Husny said.

“If he speaks like an economist or [at a] really high level by saying, ‘The fiscal policy of this government is not good …’ nobody is going to understand it, as you can imagine,” he said. “Some people and some economists will maybe say that, obviously, he’s taking some shortcuts, and especially in terms of [quantitative easing] and printing money. But it’s also a very powerful image that people can understand.”

Even if some economists accuse Poilievre of oversimplifying the issue, Husny argued it still goes in his favor because he can counter by saying his critics don’t understand that most voters’ paychecks are not worth as much as before.

He can then stress to them that he gets it.

But Husny also cautioned that Poilievre might be better off reserving his critiques for Trudeau, rather than the unelected Bank of Canada governor.

Expert analysis: Poilievre’s criticisms over the Bank of Canada’s policy fixes — and Macklem himself — have been his go-to lines of attack since 2020.

He’s zeroed in on the central bank’s large-scale bond purchasing program, which was deployed to protect Canada from Covid-19’s economic crisis. Poilievre has tried to label the bank’s quantitative easing program as a money printing scheme that helped feed Trudeau’s record-breaking deficits — and price growth.

While government deficits have been known to boost inflation, experts like McGill University’s Christopher Ragan have argued that the Covid pandemic has been nothing close to normal times.

But Ragan, founding director of the Max Bell School of Public Policy, has warned that the government needs to scale back its spending to avoid stoking any significant price pressures.

Carbon capture and ‘green energy’

What he said: “We’re going to go with technology instead of taxes. Instead of forcing our provinces to impose a tax on their citizens, we’re going to incentivize them to enable more environmentally friendly technology, like carbon capture and storage. … We’re going to export our clean, green energy to the world.”

What they heard: We’re going to smash the government’s heavy-handed restrictions on oil and gas — but you can still feel good about green tech, somehow.

A carbon tax burn, a candidate’s support for Canada’s oil and gas sector and a promise to leverage Canada’s natural resources to power the world.

Expert analysis: The federal government and Conservatives are mostly on the same page on carbon capture, utilization and storage — CCUS — deeming the technology necessary to decarbonize the oil and gas sector. The Bloc Québécois and NDP are on the other side of the argument, viewing the technology as equivalent to a fossil fuel subsidy.

Oil and gas is a significant contributor to Canada’s economy, accounting for roughly six percent of gross domestic product. And it’s a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, too. The sector is responsible for more than a quarter of the country’s total emissions.

Calling CCUS “environmentally friendly” greenwashes a process used to justify the continued production of oil and gas in a climate emergency and transition era. It gives producers license to produce more when the cost of oil floats around $100 barrels, which is math that bodes well for investors and fossil fuel executives.

Canada, keen to position itself as a climate leader, can’t cut off fossil fuels overnight without massive economic disruption. Provinces and territories have jurisdiction over the production and development of natural resources — and therein lies the tension with evolving and expanded federal climate policies which some politicians have used to their advantage.

“Energy” isn’t exclusive to oil and gas. Quebec, for example, already exports its “clean, green energy” to the world. New York City is poised to pay billions for renewable electricity generated by Quebec hydropower via the Champlain Hudson Power Express over the next 25 years.

Free speech

What he said: “The government’s now got this new Bill C-11, which will allow the CRTC to regulate what you see, and say, online. They have another bill. They want to ban you from saying anything that the government deems to be harmful. They now want to extend it so that there will be a group of bureaucrats who can cull through all the posts that go online and determine which ones could eventually lead people to think things that they shouldn’t think and therefore should be censored for.”

What they heard: F-r-e-e-d-o-m.

Shakir Chambers, a principal with Earnscliffe who worked on Doug Ford’s provincial campaign in 2018, said railing against a perceived government clampdown on free speech is catnip to the crowd. “It appeals to the people who want that freedom, who feel that libertarian streak,” he said. “Less is more, and let me just make my own decisions.”

It fits a broader strategy. Poilievre spins every government policy as anti-freedom. Vaccine mandates that fold in truckers? Overreach. The Bank of Canada’s pandemic monetary policy? Overreach. Tough rules for pipeline construction and oil exports? Overreach.

The message, said Keller: “You don’t have a lot of faith in government. I too don’t have a lot of faith in government to get things done and build this country.”

Expert analysis: The basic goal of Bill C-11 is to update Canada’s ancient broadcasting laws for the digital era, and force platforms to incorporate Canadian culture into their offerings.

When he introduced the bill, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said it “updates the rules so that all broadcasting platforms contribute to our culture. That is all. That is what the bill is all about.” But critics say it’s not that simple.

Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, has raised alarm bells.

Geist has written that the government comms approach “seems based primarily on presuming that Canadians won’t bother to read the legislation and will therefore take misleading assurances at face value.”

Rodriguez insists that digital producers — say, YouTubers — won’t have their content regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. But Geist says the bill, which is not the Liberals’ first attempt to update broadcasting rules, does “open the door to CRTC regulation of user-generated content.”

Poilievre’s stump speech also references a forthcoming Liberal bill that will attempt to combat online hate. Rodriguez hasn’t yet tabled the legislation, which is also a redo after the government’s last attempt spawned serious concerns about “unintended consequences” for freedom of speech in Canada.

The mission from here

An inescapable tension animates every Conservative leadership race. Each candidate’s popularity with the party base is measured against their future palatability with the rest of the country.

It’s not clear Poilievre has the secret sauce to win over Canada. But also, that’s not his goal just yet. He needs to win over the Conservatives first.

Some of his promises microtarget subsets of voters. He promises to unleash the power of cryptocurrency in Canada — the “blockchain capital of the world” in his wildest dreams. Crypto bros eat it up, but stumping for alternatives to the loonie might be a tougher sell on the typical Canadian suburbanite.

This race might be Poilievre’s to lose. His freedom rallies could put him over the top. But the substance behind the rhetoric can’t scare off the masses. Otherwise he’ll just be another loser who can’t beat a Liberal.

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