He's thin on policy and his enemies list grows by the day, but Conservative frontrunner Pierre Poilievre's marketing genius represents the biggest threat to Justin Trudeau since the Liberals took power in 2015.
For those unfamiliar with the presumptive leader of the Conservative party, Happy-go-Lucky Poilievre™ is a recent invention.
Before he had eyes for the boss’ chair, Poilievre was on a shortlist of most hated men in Ottawa. His willingness to stand in the House of Commons and say just about anything the party asked of him earned Poilievre his share of abuse — the 43-year-old’s opponents have called him smarmy, a clown, a lightweight and a pitbull.
It was his talent for political knife fights that gained him national prominence during Stephen Harper’s final years as prime minister. Most of his more scrupulous colleagues didn’t want to get their hands dirty defending Harper amidst a hush money scandal in the Senate, one of their fellow MPs going to jail, and countless other self-inflicted wounds.
But the Ottawa-area MP seemed to delight in the blood sport of Parliament, attacking Harper’s critics and defending his most embattled allies no matter how much evidence was stacked against them. If anything, Poilievre was even more entertaining when he knew it was hopeless. And in those last Harper years, it was almost always hopeless.
Elected to the House of Commons at 24, Poilievre first gained attention as a curiosity — one of those fresh out of debate club backbenchers with a chip on his shoulder and a knack for saying the worst possible thing. In Poilievre’s case, it was a 2008 radio show in which he said residential school survivors needed to learn the value of hard work instead of being compensated for their suffering. He would later apologize for those remarks.
But that was the old Poilievre.
The New Pierre™ has repackaged himself a man of the people. In slick campaign videos, Poilievre talks about mothers who can’t afford groceries and waits alongside Canadians who had to camp out overnight to get a passport. He’s funny, often unscripted and — though it’s hard to shake the memory of Poilievre shanking his enemies during Question Period — he’s somehow likeable.
A personal favourite is the video where Poilievre helps a man who’s been locked out of his apartment and then goes on to talk about Canada’s housing crisis.
“Years ago, when this house was built, it was probably affordable for a family,” Poilievre says, standing outside the ramshackle home the man shares with four roommates and a young couple. “A family, maybe a welder and a waitress, could afford this whole property. But now housing’s gotten so expensive, that you have to divide up that house between seven or eight people.”
It doesn’t matter that Poilievre’s solution to housing — “make the cities speed up building permits” — appears mainly to benefit real estate investors. He’s on the ground, he’s listening to working-class voters and he’s put his finger on a crisis that will affect a generation of young Canadians. That’s just smart politics.
New Pierre plays by a different set of rules. He doesn’t do scrutiny, skips Conservative leadership debates and shuns reporters so he can speak to “real people” at his stage-managed events.
New Pierre can afford to do this because he’s signed up over 312,000 new dues-paying members to the Conservative party and raised $5.3 million in the second quarter of 2022 alone. New Pierre recently cashed in on an endorsement from former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which ensures the party’s leadership race will turn into a coronation when Conservatives meet to elect their new standard bearer next month.
New Pierre could be the next prime minister of Canada.
Former New Democratic Party MP Romeo Saganash came across Poilievre in Ottawa just a few months back and the experience left him scratching his head.
“In eight-and-a-half years we served in Parliament together, (Poilievre) never once spoke to me,” said Saganash, who retired from politics in 2019. “But when I saw him in Ottawa this year, he acted like we were old friends. He came up to me and said, ‘Romeo! How’ve you been? What have you been up to?’
“I was taken aback. So I said, ‘Oh, I’m just doing some legal practice and consulting.’ He suddenly looked impressed. ‘You’re a lawyer? Wow.’ He had no idea. It was pretty weird, man.” If you Google “Romeo Saganash”, the first two words that come up are “Cree lawyer.” Given that he’s also one of the thousands of residential school survivors maligned by Poilievre, it might explain his apprehension towards New Pierre.
While Poilievre’s metamorphosis doesn’t fool Saganash, it’s doing a number on his Conservative rivals. Poilievre is up 24 points on former Quebec Premier Jean Charest in the latest Léger Marketing poll. He’s so convinced of his dominance that he recently paid a $50,000 fine to skip a leadership debate instead of risking a bad performance.
“For Poilievre, that’s just the cost of doing business,” said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. “His opponents can complain all they want, but for Poilievre, it’s a strategic choice. Why risk saying something that can be used against you in the general election?” Charest’s camp is desperate to spin the Léger poll as good news for the former premier. After all, he outperformed Poilievre among Liberals and independents, making him the more viable candidate to unseat Justin Trudeau. But no one’s listening to Charest because, while Poilievre is campaigning in 2022, he still thinks it’s 1993.
Today’s Conservatives are no longer the party of grey-haired men in Harry Rosen suits. Fiscal hawks like Andrew Coyne may appeal to people who buy newspapers and watch The National but that brand of conservatism is dying.
When only one in three Canadians believe the country is headed in the right direction, it’s hard to sell people on small government and good table manners. And why would they buy into classic conservatism? Most young people can’t afford to buy a home and half of them live one paycheque at a time. Throw in an inflation crisis and you have a growing segment of the population that are open to radical ideas.
That’s exactly who Poilievre is appealing to.
“It’s a sign of just how bad the NDP is doing, because inflation and affordability should be the New Democrats’ issue,” said Philippe J. Fournier, who runs the polling website 338 Canada. “He’s doing well because the NDP has left a void on one of its bread and butter issues. Poilievre is just occupying that void and it’s going to win him the Conservative leadership.”
While his leadership rivals get bogged down in policy, Poilievre throws red meat at the masses. A Poilievre-led government would make Canada “the most free country” on earth, audit the Bank of Canada and pull research funding from universities that kowtow to the “anti-freedom woke agenda.”
He’d personally toss out the “gatekeepers” getting between taxpayers and their money, which sounds an awful lot like “drain the swamp” when you think about it. This is Canadian populism at its finest, the kind of grievance and paranoia that brought Harper his majority in 2011. It’s an appeal to the thousands of Canadians who occupied Ottawa last winter during the Freedom Convoy.
While most of Poilievre’s colleagues were careful not to associate themselves with a group that included anti-vaxxers, white nationalists and a leader who believes “the Anglo-Saxon race” is being replaced by Muslims, he saw an opportunity. Yes, it wasn’t ideal that some of the occupiers called on Trudeau to be court-martialed and hanged by the neck. But they also represented the most concerted and organized opposition to Trudeau’s Liberals since they took office seven years ago.
This is where Jeff Ballingall comes in.
Ballingall — a senior adviser to Poilievre — rose from relative obscurity, in 2018, to play a huge role in defeating Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
With the backing of some real-estate developers and just $60,000 to play with, Ballingall launched Ontario Proud — a Facebook page that generated 67 million interactions during the 2018 provincial election. That’s more views than the Ontario Liberals, NDP and Progressive Conservatives (PC) combined.
Ballingall’s page derided the Liberal premier’s policies but users on the page took things further, alluding to her physical appearance and made allusions to her sexual orientation. He tapped into something primal, some aversion to the culture of Liberal arrogance that ultimately tanked Wynne’s campaign and forced her to concede defeat two days before the ballots were counted.
And though Ontario Proud had no official role with the PCs, the site’s financial backers got exactly what they wanted out of the election, a Progressive Conservative government dead set on slashing regulations and cutting taxes.
Ballingall leveraged his success with Ontario Proud to turn his company, Mobilize Media, into one of the most innovative public relations firms in politics. Mobilize was hired by Conservative leader Erin O’Toole during last year’s federal election.
But O’Toole’s goofy dad persona was always a poor fit with Ballingall’s fuck you brand of politics. In Poilievre, he’s found a kindred spirit, someone who loves a good mud fight just as much as he does.
You may remember the controversial Willy Wonka video from last year’s federal election. The clip, paid for by the Erin O’Toole-led Conservatives, superimposes Trudeau’s face on a spoiled little girl having a tantrum. It generated so much backlash that members of O’Toole’s own party spoke out against it. Even so, thousands of people shared the clip within the first few hours of publication, mostly to mock or deride it.
Here’s the genius part: whether you share a video to mock it or criticize it, Twitter and Facebook log the interactions into their algorithms so that the next time that same account posts something, its chances of going viral increase dramatically. There’s genius in that. Evil genius, maybe, but genius nonetheless.
When reached for comment, Ballingall said he isn’t authorized to speak to the media and that he had nothing to do with the Wonka video. But his fingerprints are all over Poilievre's leadership campaign, reframing unpopular policy points and personal attacks as a defense of the average taxpayer.
In Poilievre’s world, investing in Alberta’s tar sands isn’t harmful for the environment, it’s a way to stop paying “dirty dictatorships” for oil. In Poilievre’s world, Jean Charest isn’t one of the longest serving premiers in Quebec history, he’s a proven loser who blew his only mandate as leader of the Progressive Conservatives and led the provincial Liberals to defeat in 2012.
And while Poilievre speaks before packed arenas across the country, Charest struggles to get more than a few dozen suits into a hotel ballroom. This too has been weaponized against the former premier.
“If there was a federal election tomorrow, Charest would beat Trudeau and Poilievre wouldn’t,” Fournier said. “But that’s not the race he has to worry about. The only race that counts, right now, is the leadership race. And Charest is losing that one badly.”
Winning over Quebec Conservatives
If Poilievre’s gateway to young, angry voters passes through Ballingall, his need to attract traditional Conservatives led him to Senator Leo Housakos.
Though not quite a household name, Housakos is one of the most prominent Tories in post-Mulroney Quebec — outlasting a cast of mostly forgettable suits that includes Maxime Bernier, Denis Lebel and Christian Paradis.
“Leo isn’t an on-the-ground organizer, he’s the guy who’ll get you a meeting with the people who matter in Quebec,” said one former Housakos associate. “He knows which doors to knock on for money, he knows which community leaders to hit up for support, he knows the networks you need to tap into to win.
“The one thing with Leo, he’s accumulated a lot of favours over the years because his door has always been open to friends and foes alike. So when Leo makes a call to a community leader to meet with Poilievre, the answer is always going to be yes. I may not agree with his politics but you can’t deny he’s been around the block and he’s respected.”
Housakos, 54, is a Harper-appointed senator and political fixer who hails from Montreal’s Greek community. He traces his roots in the Conservative movement back to the days of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, when Housakos served as a staffer for the then-Minister of Multiculturalism and Citizenship, Gerry Weiner. That job introduced the emerging Housakos to Conservative supporters in predominantly Jewish areas like Côte-St-Luc and Hampstead.
But Housakos’ value is that he’s one of the rare fixers who can act as a bridge between federal Conservatives and Quebec politicians. He served as a field organizer for Charest during his failed bid to win the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1997 and appeared to be on cordial terms with his old boss after Charest became Quebec premier in 2003.
Something between the two must have soured, because Housakos was soon hired to be the head fundraiser for Charest’s rivals, the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ). In his new role, Housakos’ influence expanded beyond Montreal and into the suburban and rural ridings more receptive to “small c” conservatism. Some of his old ADQ colleagues would go on to play a central role in the election of François Legault as Quebec premier, adding yet another door for Housakos to open. His importance to the movement was cemented in 2008, when Harper gave Housakos a lifetime appointment to the Senate.
Of course, being a political bagman in Quebec left some stink on the senator. In 2013, during testimony before the Charbonneau Commission into corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, one witness alleged that Housakos orchestrated a scheme of straw man donors to the ADQ but those claims never stuck.
It was Housakos’ fundraising that led to my first tangle with the senator and Poilievre 10 years ago. I was a cub reporter working a $500-a-week gig at Postmedia’s Ottawa Bureau and, in case you’re wondering, they ate me alive.
My colleague Stephen Maher and I had stumbled on a string of bizarre political donations to a Montreal riding association overseen by Housakos. We thought we’d uncovered something big: Conservative donors from across Quebec giving money in increments of $666.66 and $333.33 to a riding the party had no chance of winning.
Maher and I worked the phones for weeks, contacting some 500 people listed as donors. Most of them hung up on us. But there were also 11 people who swore they never donated despite their names being listed on Elections Canada’s website.
After repeated questioning, they stuck to their stories. Some even insisted they’d never voted Conservative and demanded we get them answers from the party.
For a few glorious hours, our story was propelled to the top of the news cycle and we basked in the praise of our colleagues. But our hubris was short lived. During Question Period the following week, a little-known MP called Pierre Poilievre presented sworn testimony from some of our sources, who suddenly remembered their donations and accused Maher and I of harassing them.
Housakos threatened to sue us and our bosses flinched, agreeing to print a “clarification” in the National Post. I spent the rest of my internship in Ottawa hiding under a desk.
Ten years later, the duo who so thoroughly outmanoeuvred Maher and I are set to take over party leadership.
Playing both sides of the fence
There is no philosophy to Poilievre’s leadership campaign.
Only the vague notion of freedom as the answer to all society’s ills. That view harkens back to his days as a business student at the University of Calgary, when he won the 1999 “As Prime Minister…” essay writing contest.
His submission, in which he vowed that, as prime minister he would “relinquish to citizens as much of my social, political and economic control as possible” won him the $10,000 prize. Ironically, the small government libertarian has spent his entire adult life working… in government.
Which explains why he’s so good at playing both sides of the fence. He’s willing to court fringe voters who back the People’s Party of Canada by opposing vaccine mandates and railing against the Trudeau government’s mixed messaging on COVID-19. But he’s also reaching out to moderates by refusing to table any anti-abortion legislation if he ever becomes prime minister.
“He reminds of Harper in that, unlike O’Toole, he can get the social conservatives in his caucus to stay quiet,” said one Alberta Conservative whose has known Poilievre since he was first elected to federal office in 2004. “They see him as a winner and they’re willing to shut up if it means beating Trudeau. They may not like him — I certainly don’t — but they respect his abilities.”
Some of the candidate’s rare policy points are reminiscent of the overtures Harper made to immigrant communities during his string of victories in the mid aughts. Poilievre wants to make it easier for nurses and doctors from abroad to have their education recognized in Canada.
On the other hand, he balances these middle-of-the-road stances with fiscal policy that’s closer to anarcho-capitalism than the penny-pinching conservatism of his predecessors. Poilievre’s embrace of cryptocurrency as a way for Canadians to “opt out” of inflation is a nod to his libertarian bonafides. That it came just weeks before Bitcoin investors lost $2 trillion in July doesn’t matter. He’s playing to win and that means accepting some degree of risk.
It also means he travels in the same circles as people who compare central banking to Nazi Germany and claim COVID-19 is a government ploy to plunder wealth. And while there are obvious flaws in the limited policy he’s put forward — it’s not within the prime minister’s power to fire the head of the Bank of Canada — Poilievre’s message is hitting home with his party’s base. Who needs a cogent political platform when you have a movement?
This is infuriating traditional Conservatives. In a Globe and Mail column published last week, Andrew Coyne rightfully derided Poilievre’s lack of depth on policy. After all, the presumptive leader’s only meaningful legislative achievement blew up in his face.
During his time as Minister for Democratic Reform, he tabled the Fair Elections Act — an ironically-named piece of legislation that would have made it harder for Indigenous Peoples to vote and that sought to limit Elections Canada’s ability to oversee our democratic process. The bill was a thinly veiled attack on Elections Canada and an effort to suppress voting among people who don’t normally turn out for the Conservatives. It had to be re-drafted a half dozen times before it was finally repealed when the Trudeau government came to power in 2015.
That sort of policy-based criticism hasn’t taken much lustre off Poilievre. If anything, it illustrates the chasm between Coyne and Conservatives in 2022. Last week, Coyne joined his fellow centrists at an Edmonton conference meant to counter the fringe appeal of Poilievre. About 100 people showed up.
I’ve heard rumblings, from my painfully Liberal colleagues, about how awful it might be if Poilievre became prime minister. The prospect doesn’t thrill me but I’m curious to see how he handles political defeat.
Because despite his smiling new outlook to campaigning, the real ace up Poilievre’s sleeve is anger. Those crowds he riles up at his rallies and the millions of Freedom Convoy supporters he’s courting need somewhere to put their anger. Much of it has been directed at Trudeau and the media. Colleagues who covered the Freedom Convoy have been spat on, shoved and threatened by protesters whose apparent love of freedom does not include the free press. And that’s disconcerting. If he wins in a general election, these people have a direct line to the Prime Minister’s Office. If he loses, they’re an angry, mobilized bunch with a leader who lives to wage political warfare.
Either way, Poilievre is the changing face of politics in Canada and he's doing it with a smile on his face.
This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.
**The final image: The illustration by Amanda Di Genova that first appeared with this article in The Rover. The image references a classic book about Richard Nixon. The Selling of the President 1968, by Joe McGinnis, is about how advertising practices played a huge role in Richard Nixon’s election as president of the United States.