Canada’s Conservative Party leadership race is on. Previous party leader Erin O’Toole, unable to keep the animal spirits unleashed by the Freedom Convoy in harness, was voted out last month. Pierre Poilievre, first to throw his hat in the ring, is distinguished chiefly by his crypto-bro associations and his long-standing dream of smashing what’s left of Canada’s welfare state.
In negotiating the halls of power during the pandemic, Poilievre, member of Parliament for Carleton in Ottawa, has sought to appease the Conservative Party’s increasingly belligerent anti-vaccine faction. If he does attain victory in the party’s fall election, some observers warn that the party is headed for a dramatic shift to the hard right.
Bitcoin Gurus, Anti-vaxxers, Fringe Parties, and Pierre
On January 30, as the anti-vaxxer “Freedom Convoy” approached Ottawa, Pierre Poilievre was present to greet the protesters. “Governments have taken advantage of COVID to try to take away our freedom,” Poilievre told a small audience of the demonstrators, “They’re trying to increase their popularity by targeting what they perceive as an unpopular minority.”
The video of his address was uploaded to his socials, joining nearly two years of regular posts decrying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “power-grab”, “hateful demagoguery,” and complicity in the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset” plot.
This hyperbolic politicking is not nearly as exhilarating as it sounds. The alleged abuses Poilievre has brought to light are quite banal — irregular parliamentary sittings, quantitative easing, and a comment made by Trudeau about the presence of the far right at convoy events to which Poilievre took exception. Still, his grandstanding has piqued the interest of Freedom Convoy stalwarts, far-right People’s Party backers and Bitcoin libertarians. His supporters are enthusiastic about Poilievre’s pledges to let Bitcoin compete against regular currency and end all COVID-19 health precautions.
All this fanfare has earned Poilievre a significant social media presence. His 506,000 Facebook followers exceed the 459,000 who follow the party and the 166,000 who follow the recently ousted O’Toole. Similarly, his 300,000-plus Twitter followers are almost double those of O’Toole’s.
Among the party’s expected leadership candidates — including social conservative Leslyn Lewis and former Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest — Poilievre has been the most consistent party loyalist, albeit at a remove from much of the party’s power elite. Poilievre got his start as a campus conservative at the University of Calgary. There he was active in both Alberta’s provincial right-wing movements and the federal Canadian Alliance, a short-lived rebrand of the ultrareactionary Reform Party. However, his 2004 election to Parliament was in the Ottawa area — far from the oil wells that set much of the Conservative agenda.
From his position as an MP in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, Poilievre has spent years courting Eastern Ontario’s burgeoning “global tech hub” for potential backers. In a 2015 Ottawa Citizen interview, the former minister for employment and social development was asked what a reelected Conservative government would do for job prospects. The MP insisted that cutting public sector jobs would mean a boon for tech sector hiring.
“The tech sector is slowly making an impressive comeback,” Poilievre observed. Alongside “Jobs Grant” subsidies, Poilievre promised to “ensure that we keep the cost of the public sector affordable” as part of his support for a corporate tax rate even lower than that of the United States.
Poilievre credited some of his ideas to consultations with the chairman of global investment firm Wesley Clover International. “I’m spending a lot of time talking to Terry Matthews,” he said, in reference to the firm’s tech titan executive, “so our policies can keep moving in the direction his sector needs.”
Poilievre has backed legislation that would allow the government to roll back wage gains in public sector collective agreements. This legislation is a genteel version of proposals Poilievre tabled publicly in an op-ed for the National Post titled “The high price of big spenders.” Lauding then-recent Canadian privatization schemes and spending cuts, Poilievre wrote, “It is never too late to do the right thing.”
In the article, Poilievre suggested that the key to post-2008 prosperity was ruthless austerity. Government should cut “welfare programs,” “employee wages,” and “government jobs” and privatize the “major symbols of the remaining government influence on the economy.” This, he wrote, would allow Canada to enjoy a “start-up” boom, similar to Israel’s tech entrepreneurialism, thereby mimicking the successes cataloged in Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. Like the authors of that book, Poilievre is only too happy to overlook the factor of US foreign aid in Israel’s tech triumphalism.
The Trudeau government boasts that Canada is the most “decentralized country in the OECD.” This may be true, but the relative autonomy of the provinces doesn’t moot the need for federal funding. In the 1990s, the federal Liberals massively cut federal transfers to social programs like education and housing. This reduced funding left the provinces in a bind. In some cases, it encouraged provincial governments predisposed to laissez-faire governance to cut services. After 2008, many provinces, under jurisdictions that spanned the political spectrum, did just that. Ontario planned to close hundreds of schools, Quebec tried to increase university tuition dramatically, and governments in Atlantic Canada hiked class sizes and even imposed a regressive “book tax.”
Poilievre’s political outlook, however, suggests a willingness to stray further afield than what has thus far been acceptable in Canadian austerity policy. While in government, Poilievre came out staunchly in favor of “right-to-work” legislation — modeled explicitly on US legislation in Michigan — both federally and across the provinces. At the time, he told the Toronto Star, “I believe in free choice for workers and I am going to do my part to see that happens at the federal level and I would encourage provincial governments to do likewise.”
In a 2018 article, Poilievre proposed an end to social programs entirely. He claimed federal transfers and provincial programs, enabled by a “self-serving bureaucracy,” were creating a Canada-wide “welfare trap” that disincentivized job-seeking by those out of work. “What is truly horrific is the existing welfare state,” the MP wrote.
Poilievre suggested replacing “the entire welfare state” with “a tiny survival stipend.” This, he explained, would mean “eliminating all other programs, including housing, drug plans, childcare” and the “bureaucrats who administer it all” with the goal of “lowering welfare costs.”
“Unleash the Productive Forces”
With a low-tax environment, freed from disruptions like union unrest, Poilievre claims that his proposal would “unleash the productive forces.” Since 2017, key to Poilievre’s vision for this unleashed productivity is pushing for a Canadian version of the corporate tax cuts introduced by former US president Donald Trump. “American capitalism may be returning with a vengeance,” he wrote. “It will be hungry and fierce, so we cannot afford to be fat and lazy — or Americans will eat us for lunch.”
The pandemic has hardly softened him. In an interview from last autumn, he proposed to end the supposed mismatch of “people without jobs and jobs without people” with new corporate tax cuts — paid for by ending COVID-19 benefits for the unemployed.
Should his proposals not turbocharge the economy — if manufacturing fails to return and start-ups fail to proliferate — Poilievre has an alternative at hand: Bitcoin. With Ontario’s manufacturing sector struggling to make use of all its electricity, Poilievre has suggested that “Bitcoin mining” make use of the extra power: “We have to explore the possibility that that energy could be bought by Bitcoin mines. Clean, green, emissions-free bitcoin mine that could generate opportunity here.”
Liberal Austerity Plus Conservative Resentment
Some of Poilievre’s proposals resemble the regressive, anti-worker policies of Preston Manning’s The New Canada. However, unlike Manning and the Reform Party, Poilievre isn’t embraced by social conservatives or the religious right, and his ties to Western oil interests are weaker.
On economic issues, Poilievre is actually more like an extreme version of the Trudeau Liberals — both he and Liberal apparatchiks believe that the state should be the servant of tech sector profits. Since 2015, the Trudeau Liberals have pledged to spare no expense to establish “made-in-Canada Silicon Valleys.” “Just look at Silicon Valley. It crackles with ideas and experimentation,” Trudeau rhapsodized in 2016. “We have social stability, financial stability, and a government willing to invest in the future.”
In 2018, the Liberals’ supercluster initiative promised roughly $1 billion to subsidize “dense networks” of tech firms across ailing industrial centers. Thus far, there is scant evidence for the scheme’s success. Instead, government agencies tasked with promoting FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) have sought to woo tech investors to Canada, on the basis of its competitive “labor costs.”
Catering to the tech industry — traditionally, not a strong sector of Canada’s economy — will mean subsidies but also wage cuts, tax cuts, and privatization schemes. Indeed, one of the only Canadian tech companies to ever become a “world leader” was Nortel — a privatized (now bankrupt) crown corporation.
Poilievre and the Liberals share a mutual admiration for both tech adventurism and austerity measures. Trudeau, in his book Common Ground, described his party’s austerity measures as necessary to demonstrate the party’s “credibility.” Poilievre, speaking to MNP accountants, similarly lauded Liberal efforts as having established the “fiscal tract” and the budgetary “consensus” he wants to continue.
At the policy level, Poilievre may simply offer Liberal ideas with the smiley face removed. To win, however, Poilievre will need to mobilize a base. For the Conservative Party, that means courting an older, whiter section of Canadian society — one that is far more open to conspiracy theories.
Policy Options notes that a larger share of Conservative Party voters believe in key COVID-19 conspiracies than do supporters of either of Canada’s other major federal parties. Up to 18 percent believe that Bill Gates invented COVID-19 to inject Canadians with microchips. This has led to editorials in the Globe and Mail proposing a campaign of expulsions to salvage the party apparatus from its membership.
Poilievre will have to bolster his hack-and-slash laissez-faire commitments by leveraging social polarization. To this end, in recent interviews with two of Canada’s largest right-wing blogs, he pledged to distinguish himself from other candidates by winning back anti-vaxxers and supporters of the far-right People’s Party with a program for “freedom” — “regardless of vaccine status.”
Nature abhors a vacuum. The Liberals are failing to offer Canadians a future, and polarization seems inevitable. Uncontested by an antiestablishment left, Poilievre could embolden Canada’s right-wing fringe and, perhaps, deliver on his pledge to dismantle what’s left of Canada’s welfare state.