The Commons: The baby face of Canadian conservatism

Pierre Poilievre and his three principles of politics

The Commons: The baby face of Canadian conservatismPierre Poilievre climbed on stage, extended a hand and greeted Bernard Lord as “premier.” Noticing a couple dignitaries in the first row of seats in front of him, he smiled and struck up a conversation.

Organizers walked around handing out a workbook for “personal reflection.” Poilievre—baby-faced and not yet 30, short hair parted to the left and slick with product, wearing rimless glasses, a dark blue suit, light blue shirt and maroon-and-blue-striped tie—sat and studied his audience, a group of maybe 25, many of them his age or younger.

To his left sat Patrick Brazeau, a 34-year-old Aboriginal man, recently appointed to the Senate and the subject of various controversies. To his right, sat Fraser Macdonald, a 20-something who had already managed a campaign for federal office. At the microphone, stood Bernard Lord, emcee for this forum. In 1999, at the age of 33, Lord was elected premier of New Brunswick and was quickly hailed as a potential saviour for the federal Progressive Conservative party. Seven years later, the PC party now in the past tense, Lord was voted out of office in New Brunswick. Still charming and boyish, though with as much grey hair as black hair, he’s now a lobbyist for the telecommunications industry.

The panel, part of a weekend conservative conference in Ottawa, was entitled “Next Generation: For those new to politics, particulary students and young people—Imagine what could be, imagine what you could do.”

Though 14 years older, Lord introduced Poilievre in tones approaching reverence. “I’m very pleased to introduce Pierre Poilievre. He is an energetic and outspoken member of parliament, who gets results and is not afraid to take principled stands on difficult issues … a great example of youth, energy, results and success in Canadian politics.”

“Thank you very much premier, what a pleasure it is to be on the stage with Canada’s youngest elder statesman,” Poilievre joked after arriving at the microphone.

Poilievre’s political life is not uncontroversial. Actually, to be fair, that’s an understatement. More specifically, Poilievre is probably one of the more generally infuriating individuals on Parliament Hill.

Of course, he is also one of the most successful.

In June 2006, two years after he was first elected and months after the Conservatives formed government, he was accused of both mocking the Speaker and gesturing rudely in the House of Commons. “Mr. Speaker, yesterday some members raised a concern about some gestures that they alleged I had made in the House of Commons at that time,” he said the next day. “I wish to say, as I am a gentleman of this House, that if any of my gestures have offended them or any member in this House, I wish to apologize and withdraw.”

Days earlier he was caught on camera swearing at other MPs during a committee meeting. (Video of that incident is preserved on YouTube.)

In February 2007, he suggested to an Ottawa radio station that an “extremist element” in the Liberal party was to explain for the opposition’s reluctance to renew several anti-terror laws. A year later, speaking to the same radio station, he wondered whether money directed to Aboriginal victims of residential schools was a wise investment. Those comments came just hours before Parliament commemorated the National Day of Apology.

“Mr. Speaker, I rise today to offer a full apology to aboriginal people, to the House and to all Canadians,” he said in the House the next day. “Yesterday, on a day when the House and all Canadians were celebrating a new beginning, I made remarks that were hurtful and wrong. I accept responsibility for them, and I apologize.”

Opposition MPs demanded he be removed from his parliamentary secretary position. Ottawa Citizen columnist Randall Denley called on Poilievre’s constituents to vote him out of office at the next opportunity. “I used to think that Nepean-Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre was a pretty smart kid who, despite a tendency to be a hyper-partisan self-promoter, would eventually grow into his responsibilities,” Denley wrote. “His recent actions have caused me to rethink that assessment. Poilievre’s statements about native residential schools this week were appalling in their content and horrendous in their timing. His party, and voters in Nepean-Carleton, should be asking if he’s fit to hold public office. As a constituent, I would say no.”

When Poilievre and the Conservative government were reelected last fall, Stephen Harper made Poilievre his personal parliamentary secretary.

In between apologies, he has acted as one of the Prime Minister’s lead partisans, perfecting a patronizing smugness that infuriates his opponents. At the peak of controversy over the Conservative party’s election spending practices, it was Poilievre who handled the matter in Question Period, reducing the allegations to a mocking call-and-response chant with his fellow government MPs. He has, at various points, mocked or criticized Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, general Romeo Dallaire and actress Sarah Polley. John Baird, one of his political mentors, often yells “Way to go, Skippy” at the conclusion of Poilievre’s performances.

This past week he twice rose in the House to protest the Speaker’s decision to limit personal attacks in the Commons.

“When I was contemplating a run for public office, I called John Baird, who was elected in Nepean-Carleton, my riding, at the age of 25, at the provincial level,” Poilievre recounted Saturday morning. “And I talked to him on the phone for a short time and I asked him, ‘If I run, do you think that I would have a chance of winning?’ And we hummed and hawed  … and John finally cut through all the noise and he said to me, ‘At the end of the day, the guy who wins is the guy who has the guts to run.'”

Never minding the strange bit of wisdom from Baird—don’t all candidates, by virtue of their running, possess such guts?—Poilievre has been unquestionably successful in this regard. In his first election, in 2004, he defeated David Pratt, a Liberal cabinet minister, by nearly 4,000 votes. Two years later he nearly doubled the total of his closest rival in the suburban and rural riding south of Ottawa. Last fall he won with 39,915 votes. The Liberal candidate finished second with just under 17,000.

In a 2006 survey of Parliament Hill staffers he was named the “hardest working MP” and finished second in the “best constituency MP” category. Last year, the same survey named him “biggest gossip.” He finished second to Michael Ignatieff in the category of “most ambitious” and tied for first as “biggest self-promoter” with his friend Mr. Baird.

In his opening remarks on Saturday, he outlined three principles, the second of which was communication. “This is a skill that is most demanded and least possessed on Parliament Hill,” he said. “Since I have been a member of parliament I have found it to be a real struggle to hire people who know how to write in a language that real people understand.”

His explanation for this was novel.

“The problem likely is that a lot of our young political activists were very good in university,” he said. “And if they could get an A on their university paper it means that they were destined to be political communicators. Why is this? Not because critical thought and learning is bad, but because in university we are taught to take five pages of content and stretch it into 20 pages of writing. When, in fact, the real skill is to do exactly the opposite, to compress that five pages into one. I think it was Rousseau who said, in a ten-page letter to a friend of his, ‘I would’ve written you this letter in one page, but I didn’t have time.'”

As an example of the right way to do things, he might’ve pointed to his own personal website—

“Write and constantly fixate your energy on writing language that people sitting around Tim Horton’s will understand,” he continued, encouraging aspiring politicians to write for their community or student newspaper. “The voter does not have any responsibility to spend their time deciphering your Latin. They have a busy life. They are raising families. They are paying taxes. They are working their jobs. It is not their responsibility to decipher excessively verbose language. It is their job to read it and get it quick. It’s your job to help them do that.”

Wooing those who disregard or dislike politics was a bit of a theme.

He proceeded to explain the virtues of campaigning. “On the spoken side, the best way you can learn to communicate is in a way that often politicos denigrate, which is to do the hard, blue collar work of campaigning, going door-to-door … Often times, we in the political class, we develop our own language and we start to speak that language. We use acronyms that nobody understands, we use long, pointless sentences, we become vague. What you learn when you knock on doors is how to communicate with people who have busy lives and who don’t have time to decipher your Latin. And the great thing about knocking on doors is you have an instant and free focus group. You can tell by whether or not the voter’s eyes are glazing over if you are actually communicating. You can tell whether or not your language is persuasive to them, or just to you … You can test yourself over and over and over again.”

Moving to his third principle—”stand for something”—he pointed to the cautionary tales of Joe Clark, Kim Campbell, Ernie Eves and John Tory. “What we have learned is that when we abandon conservative voters, conservative voters will find a way to abandon us,” he said. “So if you want to be successful in conservative politics, you have to stand for something. You have to stand for ideas that excite large numbers of people—electricians, mechanics, carpenters, everyday working people that might not be totally fascinated by politics and, if they don’t like what they see, they might not vote at all. But if you do as Mike Harris and Preston Manning and Stephen Harper have done over the years, which is to inspire them with common sense ideas that they can understand and that make sense in their own minds, then they will come out, and they will come out massively, to support you and your party and they will give you the victory that you deserve. Not only will those principles give you victory, they will give your victory a purpose.”

His opening remarks were done there and he was met with applause.

Lord said the schedule allowed now for a coffee break, but, noting his own willingness to keep going, he put it to vote. A show of hands showed overwhelming support to continue, the discussion ultimately stretching for two-and-a-half hours.

A girl with blue streaks in her blonde hair had a question for Brazeau. A young social conservative wanted to know what young people could do about senate reform. A young man asked what people his age should do if they find their efforts impeded or rebuffed by older campaign workers.

“I would suggest just go around that person and don’t let them get in your way. You can go try to go through them but that’s usually not worth the effort,” Poilievre advised. “Show that you are useful. There’s one position on the campaign that is always over-filled and that is campaign strategist. Every campaign has thousands of strategists, there are no shortage of them, they’ll work for free. Strategist for them means sitting around in the campaign office, leaning back in their chairs, telling the world what everyone else is doing wrong. We don’t need any of those people. So when you’re a young person and you want to prove your usefulness, go out and knock on doors, make phone calls, do the real work and show that you can get things done. And before you know it, everyone around the room will start to appreciate you because they see that you can get results and you deliver.”

Poilievre sat up straight with eyes wide. He looked like a church acolyte. He laughed and smiled at other people’s jokes. For awhile he folded his hands under his chin and propped himself up on his elbows. He spoke only when asked to and avoided matters of potential controversy. (Poilievre, for instance, went nowhere near a question on euthanasia, abortion and traditional marriage.) He was relentlessly practical. At times he sounded like the smartest man in the room. Or at least the most self-aware.

A woman with dark red hair that hung past her waist, and who had apparently volunteered in the past for Poilievre, asked what issues young conservatives might help promote.

“I would think that the Conservative policy agenda that is most in full advance is the justice file,” Poilievre responded. “The great advantage of the justice issues is, one, they are right. Two, they are not just popular, they are extremely popular. The public is overwhelmingly behind us on this. And I don’t just mean Conservative voters, I mean the vast majority of New Democratic voters are strongly behind the Conservative justice agenda. It is by far the most potent political issue and it is also the right thing to do.”

A young man in a suit asked how receptive voters are to young people running for office. “I think of Bernard Lord’s campaign. He was running on change, but not only was he running on change, he was change. And you could tell by looking at his picture that he was change,” explained Poilievre. “I was running in 2004 and the sponsorship scandal was just exploding into existence and Dalton McGuinty had just broken his promise not to raise taxes. So everybody was very angry at politicians generally. So when I said change, it helped me to look like change. I was 24 years old and people would say, ‘My god, you’re young.’ And I would say, ‘Thank you, I appreciate the compliment. That’s exactly what we need. We need some new blood in there, people who can shake things up and change the things that you hate reading about on the front page of the newspaper.’ I found that very effective. Converting retreat into advance.”

His moments of hackneyed partisanship—”We are not the party of the elite,” he reminded everyone at one point—were rare. Lord talked of his past and his vision. Brazeau talked of his experiences and his ideals. Poilievre explained and instructed, rarely straying from the practicalities. Politics as means. A profession of transactions.

“When you’re running for office, there is this irrepressible desire … to campaign on your resume,” he said after offering a prospective candidate a detailed guide to the nomination process. “And there are two problems with campaigning exclusively on one’s resume. Ninety percent of candidates do it and the reason that they lose is because they do it. One, because the resume is about the past and your candidacy is about the future. So it’s important to show people that you have a credible background but only as it relates to what you can do for them tomorrow. Secondly, your resume is about you and the campaign is not about you, it’s about the people. So the two things that you have to talk about constantly in a campaign are the people that you want to represent—their values and their interests and how you want to advance them—and the future. Everything is about the future.”

This last bit was delivered less like an airy ideal than an instructional mantra. Poilievre sounded entirely unapologetic.