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Tom Mulcair: Just give it time, and Poilievre's stances can turn on a dime


Pierre Poilievre seems to have discovered the charm of saying one thing and its opposite in successive interviews. That is a technique that could quickly start to raise questions in the minds of the voting public, about what he actually stands for.

In a year-end interview with my colleague Emmanuelle Latraverse on LCN, Poilievre was as clear as a bell: he would not cut any social programs if he were to become prime minister. Period.

I was on the panel show covering the interview that night and the totally unambiguous nature of the response impressed me. He had not attempted to play word games. He didn’t try to carve out an opening. He spoke with simple Anglo-Saxon words, as he would be wont to say. He won’t touch social programs. Good.

I’ve had occasion to repeat that quote any number of times since then. Why not? I’ve always believed that social programs were a great way to reduce inequality in our society. I try to give credit where credit is due on all sides of the political spectrum.

I love to cover and comment on the issues and the players and Poilievre had earned my admiration for his statement before the holidays. He was, in my view, right to support social programs and he was not speaking with a forked tongue. He was transparent, there were no ifs ands or buts.

What a difference three months makes. Last Friday (March 22) wasn’t Groundhog Day, but someone should’ve told the leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

Same show (LCN’s “Le Bilan”), same seasoned and highly-respected journalist, Emmanuelle Latraverse, interviewing Mr. Poilievre. I was again on the panel doing the commentary. Latraverse returned to the question of social programs like dental care and pharmacare.

Screenshot of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre appearing on the March 22, 2024 episode of 'Le Bilan' (TVA+ / LCN)

Everyone watching learned that we have another expert Canadian figure skater in addition to our newly-crowned world champs. In fact, Poilievre showed himself to be a multi-sport athlete. When he wasn’t skating around in circles, he was doing the back crawl to get away from the question.

In response to a direct question, Poilievre sputtered something about jurisdiction of the provinces. He attempted to do that smile thing (he looks carnivorous when he does) and uncomfortably tried to move on. He used weasel words like “generally” to describe provincial rights to withdraw from federal social programs. It was anything but convincing.

Poilievre knew full well that his previous unambiguous answer made his promise to balance the budget implausible. He clearly hates several of the social programs that the unholy alliance between the Liberals and the NDP have brought in.

Now, Poilievre is going to have to provide something resembling a clear answer. It’s not as if he doesn’t know how. He proved before Christmas that he can. It’s just that he thinks he can provide successive answers that just happen to contradict each other, and nobody will notice.

Poilievre can be an exceptional communicator. He also has a high opinion of his opinions. Even great communicators can flub it. When you spend your life in front of a microphone, be it in question period or on television, you’re bound to make mistakes. Only normal. The subtlety is knowing how to bail and repair when you’ve clearly said something that will hurt, long term. That’s still a work in progress for Poilievre.

He hates to admit he was wrong (again, not a rarity in politics). But his deep-seated tendency to try to snow his way out of a tough spot can and does make difficult situations worse.

He invented out of whole cloth a reason to oppose the Canada-Ukraine trade deal. In Poilievre’s telling, that deal was tainted because it had a carbon tax. Of course, that was a nose-stretcher and opposing a free trade deal with a country that had been illegally invaded by Russia wasn’t just poor optics, it showed pathetic judgment, before history.

To make matters worse, in one rhetorical flourish with Trudeau, he wrote off Ukraine as some "far-away foreign" land.

That "far-away foreign" land, and others in the region, have to be the object of consistent, thoughtful support by NATO and other allies, not dismissive cheap shots.

The recent departure of Brian Mulroney reminded all Canadians that our country can contribute mightily to shaping world events. Global Affairs Canada has been one of the weakest ministries in Ottawa, under the Trudeau/Joly tutelage. It could be an opportunity for Poilievre to shine. Instead, it’s another area in which he’s proving he’s not really ready for prime time.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly at the Canada CARICOM Summit in Ottawa, Oct. 18, 2023 (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

With Trump in the bullpen warming up for another four years of chaos, it's difficult to predict how things will unfold with Russia’s illegal war.

One thing is certain, that war will end someday. On what terms, is the key question. Canada’s deep experience in peacekeeping can easily allow us to become a key player in peacemaking. Poilievre could take the time to walk back his slur about far-off foreign lands and learn something about the complex world of foreign affairs. Or, he could continue to shoot from the lip.

Poilievre loves simple. In fact it's been a key part of his success. Nothing is complicated. He’s going to balance the budget, cut taxes, stop crime, build you a house and make your groceries cheaper.

The minority Liberals have bought themselves the comfort of a majority government via Trudeau’s deal with Singh, even though the Liberals got fewer votes than the Conservatives. Quite a feat. We now all understand that Trudeau lied through his teeth during the 2015 campaign when he swore he’d dump Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system. He loves that unfair system and would never change it.

Poilievre is going to have to learn to pace himself and now that he has some time ahead, he should do just that: learn. Eighteen months of the frenetic version of Poilievre could soon start to exhaust Canadians and make them wary of what they’d be getting if they voted him in. If he’s wise, he’ll learn to put together proposals, and answers, that don’t have to be corrected or rationalized in successive interviews.

If he continues to be a free electron, bouncing around with tons of energy but no consistency, Canadian voters will start to pay more attention to Poilievre’s contradictions and implausible nostrums. He’s riding high now but the voting public likes to know what they’d really be getting. That, so far, is anything but clear with Poilievre.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017




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