Liberals’ Poilievre strategy a risky one

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should be cautious about making the same mistake with Pierre Poilievre as Stephen Harper did with him when the Conservative prime minister mischaracterized his Liberal opponent only to see him surpass expectations.

Back in 2015, Harper’s director of communications, Kory Teneycke, told reporters that expectations of Trudeau were so low going into the first election debate “that if he comes on stage with his pants on, he will probably exceed expectations.”

The Conservatives spent years telling each other and Canadians that Trudeau wasn’t up to the job of prime minister. Their first attack ad, in 2013, used footage of Trudeau pretending to strip at a charity fundraiser to mock him as a pretty-boy lightweight who was “in way over his head.”

That framing, pounded through a series of other ads, suggested Trudeau couldn’t protect the country from terrorism, or handle the nation’s finances, or lacked the experience to lead the country – because he’d been a camp counsellor, a rafting instructor and a drama teacher.

For two years, Conservatives lowered expectations so much that when the 2015 election came around and Canadians had a long look at Trudeau, his team, and his Liberal platform, enough voters felt the Tories’ attacks didn’t ring true and they handed the untested leader a majority government.

The Liberals would be wise to remember that.

At the Liberal party’s national convention this past week, the prime minister’s team portrayed Poilievre as a far-right-Donald-Trump-MAGA (Make America Great Again) extremist.

In a speech to convention delegates Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly pointed to the current Conservative leader and declared “the rising tide of the far right has already reached our shores.”

Poilievre, she said, “stood shoulder to shoulder and gave a platform to conspiracy theorists” to get elected, and after he won, Canadians got more of the same.

Behind closed doors, the following morning, Joly went further. She told Liberal delegates this would be the ballot question at the next election. “You’ve heard me in the speech yesterday saying that the far right has now reached our shores. And that’s the real choice that Canadians will have to be facing in the next election, is … do we accept that or not?”

The campaign, Joly said, has already begun. “We’re a minority government,” she noted, and the party will soon face five by-elections (two in Manitoba, and one each in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec).

“Every election is a new election. It’s a new narrative. It’s a new choice. What we know is that Poilievre has imported, in Canada, the MAGA extremist, you know, rhetoric,” she said. “When you watch (controversial Florida Republican Gov.) Ron DeSantis in speeches or (former U.S. president) Trump you see the same type of vocabulary that is used by Poilievre.”

She predicted the 2024 presidential election in the United States – likely another faceoff between Trump and President Joe Biden – will influence Canadians, and stressed how important it is for Liberals to make “extremely clear” the choice between Trudeau and Poilievre “is stark.”

Liberal MP Tim Louis, who was on the same panel with Joly, suggested this might make the difference between a Liberal minority or a majority mandate.

On stage Friday, Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, New York senator, and Democratic presidential nominee who lost to Trump, echoed these themes, warning delegates that a lot of democracies are being undermined by forces largely on the political right who deny minority rights and dismiss a free press. “You just have to be highly alert to this, do not dismiss it.”

She spoke of her former Republican colleagues in the U.S. Senate and said she no longer recognizes them. “I don’t recognize people who I worked with who are now willing to engage in election denial. Who are claiming that there are outlandish conspiracies, that the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 didn’t really happen, even though we saw it with our own eyes. It is shocking to me what has happened to the Republican Party in the United States.”

Trudeau himself, in a speech to the party faithful, sought to paint the Conservative party as conspiracy laden and out of touch with mainstream Conservatives.

The Liberal leader suggested Poilievre and his “brokenness Conservative party” would be unable to help Canadians get better access to a family doctor, or help young people buy their first home. “Pierre Poilievre’s populism, his slogans and buzzwords are not serious solutions to the serious challenges we’re facing,” he said.

Yes, Poilievre rails against “wokeism.” He frequently spreads disinformation and mischaracterizes Liberal policy. (His latest attack suggesting the Grits would legalize crack, cocaine and heroin is particularly egregious.) He placates conspiracy theorists. He seeks to defund the CBC, and he muzzles his backbench. The Liberals aren’t wrong to say the Conservative leader is for “freedom for some but not for all.”

But Poilievre has not shown himself to be an apologist for authoritarian regimes, or to embrace anti-immigration policies, or attack LGBTQ rights.

The more the Liberals seek to paint Poilievre as Trump or DeSantis, the further they risk alienating voters who once they take a good look at the Conservative leader discover he’s not quite what was portrayed.

Althia raj Toronto Star OPINION Twitter: @althiaraj

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *