OTTAWA The early days of Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre’s bid to lead his party reveal a quest to thread a difficult needle: how to win over the party with the same tone and substance that can carry over to winning a general election.
Recent days on his campaign trail show how challenging that quest might be for a man whose political reputation rests on his skills as a fighter from the Opposition benches.
Saturday was to bring a high-stakes rally in Brampton, the home turf of one his main rivals in the contest, Mayor Patrick Brown.
Their campaigns have been attacking each other aggressively since Brown jumped into the race with the goal of scooping up the progressive voters skeptical of Poilievre’s populist approach.
While Poilievre hoped to bring Saturday’s crowd — estimated at over 250 people — to its feet with enthusiasm for his message, before the event began a man collapsed and was taken away by ambulance.
“I think it is best now to conclude with a moment of silence and prayer,” Poilievre quietly said, flanked by his wife Ana, former party leader Andrew Scheer and other MPs.
His trademark energy was expected to be back on display later Saturday for an event hosted by York-Simcoe MP Scot Davidson, but which was also being promoted on social media by supporters of local “freedom convoys,” offshoots of the groups that paralyzed downtown Ottawa and choked off border crossings earlier this year.
A flag touting Poilievre for prime minister had been hung from one of those Ottawa trucks, evidence of the support he already has among the populist wing of the party.
Poilievre’s fights with Brown and another candidate in the contest, former PC Leader Jean Charest — he has lumped them together as liberals and betrayers of Conservative values — as well as his support for the truckers are alienating some inside the conservative movement.
One longtime insider speaking anonymously as they want to stay neutral in the race told the Star there are concerns Poilievre’s “juvenile political theatre” will just end up being weaponized by the Liberals the next campaign to the detriment of whoever wins the leadership race.
Even some MPs inside caucus are grumbling that the way his campaign is being run is creating worse divisions in the party than exist now, a theme reflected in comments from interim party leader Candice Bergen this week when she said no leadership candidate ought to be tearing another down.
Poilievre’s campaign is aware of the grumbling, some of which they discount as coming from rival camps, and some they acknowledge they may need to address.
One way to do that is policy.
On Friday, to a crowd in St. John’s, N.L., Poilievre promised that if elected he’d ban the import of oil from any country considered a “polluting dictatorship,” meaning they don’t respect Canada’s environmental standards, fund terrorism or abuse human rights.
He would make up the difference by supporting an increase in domestic production, specifically doubling output from Newfoundland and Labrador, while also simplifying the process of getting energy products approved, and find a way to transport more energy from west to east, be it a new pipeline or other routes.
While any Conservative candidate who doesn’t champion the oil and gas sector would be dead in the political water, the subsequent question-and-answer revealed Poilievre is also well aware that politicians can’t talk about oil and gas development without addressing the knock-on effects on greenhouse gas emissions.
“What I am proposing today is part of our fight against climate change,” he said in response to a question.
“To stop dirty overseas oil, which is higher emitting, and replace it with clean and ethical Canadian energy.”
His campaign says more detailed policy on meeting emissions targets will be presented in the coming months, as will specific ideas on housing, among others.
Conservative leadership candidates have until the end of April to qualify for the contest by submitting a $300,000 fee and 500 signatures in support of their bid, and must pass muster in an interview as well as on a questionnaire.
To date, 10 people are trying to qualify to run: Poilievre, Brown, Charest, MPs Leslyn Lewis, Scott Aitchison and Marc Dalton, former MP Leona Alleslev, Ontario MPP Roman Baber, lawyer and former Tory candidate Joel Etienne, and Saskatchewan businessman Joseph Bourgault.
Party members will elect a new leader via a mail-in ballot and the results will be revealed on Sept. 10.
While Poilievre is considered the front-runner, his campaign is determined not to repeat two mistakes they saw in the 2020 leadership contest.
Peter MacKay was the front-runner then but lost, which Team Poilievre sees as a result of him appearing to take the his victory for granted.
Poilievre’s schedule will see him continually criss-cross the country over the coming months. In the next week alone, he’ll bounce around Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.
But they are also aware of O’Toole’s fatal flaw: running during the leadership race on a suite of policies explicitly targeted at the party’s membership, which O’Toole then felt he had to change in order to win a general election.
Poilievre has no intention of watering down his ideas — some have been part of his political outlook for decades — but he is beginning to seek out ways to show a different side.
In one well-received recent video, he offers an inspirational monologue about the similarities between former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker and Liberal prime minister Wilfrid Laurier.
In another, he denounces the idea that any politician ought to campaign by positioning themselves on a political spectrum because it exists “nowhere in the real world,” and says his focus will be on practical policies to give people control over their lives.
First, they have to give him control of the party.
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