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Don Martin: In the heart of Liberal-owned Toronto, an unlikely Conservative rock star takes the stage

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Campaign crowds can sometimes be fake news.

Organizers can falsify the frenzy by booking a room they know is too small and fill it to capacity to create the impression of a delirious crush of support.

Or you can pick a geographical location where your candidate’s support is deepest to showcase a disproportionately large audience as a typical rally.

But this Pierre Poilievre overflowing-audience phenomenon has me stumped, particularly after Tuesday night.

Keep in mind Toronto is political home to 25 Liberal MPs out of 25 available seats. This particular venue is in a riding where the Conservatives finished third in 2021 with just 12 per cent of the vote to a Liberal with four times the ballot count.

In what might’ve been a normal show of Conservative candidate appeal in a bingo hall south of Calgary, the leadership frontrunner attracted about 1,000 Torontonians to a brewery in the shadow of the CN Tower.

That suggests the majority of those attending had a long heavy-traffic commute from the suburbs, where the Conservative brand at least has a pulse, on a chilly windy night when staying home was a very tempting alternative.

Pierre Poilievre at an event in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (Source: @PierrePoilievre / Twitter)

So what’s the cheerleading attraction?

Poilievre is a face nine Canadians out of ten still couldn’t pick out of a two-person lineup.

He is my MP and shows up at church basement dinners, community fairs and Remembrance Day services to a subdued nod of recognition from the locals.

Yet he struts into a 700-person filled-to-capacity hall with a few hundred more in the adjacent overflow room, a crowd one Conservative begrudgingly told me even Stephen Harper could not have attracted while serving as prime minister, and Poilievre is a rock star standing on Liberal bedrock.

For what it’s worth, with apologies to Buffalo Springfield, there’s something happenin’ here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

The Steam Whistle Brewing Company venue owner clearly doesn’t know what to make of it. They handed out a letter to attendees underlining that hosting the Poilievre campaign does not align the brewery with his controversial policy positions. That’s a first.

So, if it’s not a force of personality – and Poilievre seems a few litres short of the royal jelly needed to induce a mania – it must be his policies.

But even that’s a headscratcher.

He vows to knock away bureaucratic ‘gatekeepers’ to allow foreign professionals to establish here, not exactly the sort of policy true-blue Conservatives have been pushing to implement.

And then there’s his housing promise to cut through red tape holding back construction to unleash a building boom.

Couple of problems with that. Housing approvals are mostly a jurisdiction of municipalities, albeit under provincial control. How a federal government could reach through the provincial maze to cut red tape in city planning departments is a mission improbable, even if it uses housing grants to induce them to act.

Besides, the housing construction industry is already working to capacity, so unless a Poilievre as prime minister could produce thousands of provincially-trained carpenters, plumbers and electricians overnight, there’s no way to create a supply-boosting building boom.

Then there’s his veto on buying foreign oil by building pipelines to everywhere. But if a pipeline connection to east coast refineries cannot be built over Quebec’s objections, where does New Brunswick get domestic oil to process? Again, his rhetoric is divorced from reality.

But leadership campaigns are all about grabbing attention backed by faint promises of future action.

On that score, Poilievre is functioning at a far higher level than his seven opponents, half of whom have no business being in this race.

Plenty of problems could still pothole Poilievre’s road to the PMO, of course.

To keep his momentum going, Poilievre has to feed the seething anger at Justin Trudeau without stoking it too far so that it alienates the middle-ground electorate the party needs to win the next election.

It’s also likely that his Trudeau target will not be the Conservative’s main rival in the next election. The current prime minister is stale-dated and ready to be replaced by a more formidable opponent from anyone in the on-deck Chrystia Freeland, Anita Anand or Francois-Phillippe Champagne circle.

And the issues Poilievre is highlighting as Liberal attack material could well be resolved long before an actual election campaign. The housing market he seeks to expand is already showing signs of softening under rising interest rates, inflation could be back under control and we can only hope there are no pandemic-fighting mandates left for him to repeal in 2025.

But those are post-leadership challenges. First, he needs a win on September 10.

And in the here and now, it must be acknowledged that Pierre Poilievre is attracting impressive crowds to large halls in very unlikely locations. He is getting euphoric reactions from the base to his quip-filled policies, even if they are politically problematic. And his team is undoubtedly selling hundreds of loyal Poilievre memberships at every pitstop of the tour.

If this early romp lasts another month, Canada’s unlikeliest political rock star will be impossible to beat.

That’s the bottom line. 

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