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Tom Mulcair: Pierre Poilievre, from lone wolf to leader of the pack

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Pierre Poilievre’s wheedling and unctuous tone was always like fingernails on a blackboard for those who sat across from him in the House of Commons.

I always got a chuckle from his performance. He clearly derived great glee from driving his adversaries nuts but I also noticed that his act delighted his Conservative colleagues, especially the backbenchers.

Unlike frontbenchers of the calibre of Lisa Raitt or Rona Ambrose, "Skippy," as John Baird loved to call Poilievre, was never an obvious choice for cabinet. When Stephen Harper finally did tap him on the shoulder, it was not only validation for Poilievre, it was a sign to hard working backbenchers that there was hope: one of their own had made it into the Holy of Holies.

Fast forward a few years. No one calls him Skippy anymore. The Conservatives have tasked Poilievre with accomplishing something Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole couldn’t: holding a fractious party together while at the same time doing battle with Trudeau and, it appears, the media. Quite a tall order but Poilievre seems to have the first task largely accomplished. Now comes the hard part.

Reaction to his election oscillated between admiration for the obvious organizational skill, reflected by the scope of his victory, to head scratching as he intentionally began a scorched-earth policy with journalists.

Poilievre is in an enviable position. He has such clear ascendancy over his caucus and party that no one is going to mess with him the way he messed with O’Toole.

'SOMETIMES OUR QUALITIES CAN BECOME OUR FAILINGS'

Everyone who’s worked with him will tell you that he’s always been a lone wolf and a contrarian, with those two characteristics playing off one another. He has always beamed out: "I couldn’t care less what you think, I know that I’m right." Confidence is a necessary characteristic in politics but sometimes our qualities can become our failings.

Caucus colleagues have explained to me that he was always on his own tack, never afraid to argue with or contradict higher-ups, even when he was on the bottom rung of the caucus ladder. Harper, with his legendary thin skin, didn’t seem to mind. That Poilièvre made it to cabinet is a sign that his scrappiness was seen as a positive.

Precisely because he’s predisposed to choosing the most conflictual path, his main job for Harper -- preparing a major electoral reform -- failed miserably. Poilievre wasn’t going to work with other parties, he had a job to do and he was going to shove his plan down the opposition’s throats. The problem was, that plan involved the electoral process and a one man show doesn’t get to call the shots for all of the parties in Parliament.

Poilievre produced a roadmap for vote suppression that would’ve made it harder for people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum to exercise that most fundamental of democratic rights. Poilievre talks a good game about "Freedom" but there are few freedoms more fundamental than the right to choose the people who govern us. Restricting that freedom for partisan gain didn’t seem to bother him one bit. Quite the contradiction.

Negative reaction to Poilievre’s electoral reform was widespread, not only among political adversaries. Harper was forced to retreat from key elements of the proposals.

It’s that Pierre Poilievre, the one who’s never wrong, who never accepts or even acknowledges another point of view than his own, who now controls the Conservative Caucus and party, with the backing of Stephen Harper.

Caucus management, like all of politics, is the art of compromise. It’s very unlikely Pierre Poilievre, the Party leader, would ever put up with a Poilievre-like backbench contrarian. It remains to be seen if he can build loyalty and show an ability to respect ideas other than his own.

Whether the Conservatives can work as a team to take down Trudeau will largely depend on whether the "lone wolf" can learn to be an effective leader of the pack. If the only role for his team is baying in approval, Trudeau will continue uncontested.

'TRUMP-LIKE ANIMOSITY TOWARDS THE MEDIA'

Part of Poilievre’s game plan involves open, Trump-like animosity towards the media. We’re not there yet, but he’s not terribly far from describing them as "enemies of the people". It’s a fight Poilievre wants to have. On the leadership campaign trail, his stump speech included a promise to eliminate the CBC. (Radio-Canada would apparently be allowed to keep the French news channel.)

His promise to get rid of the CBC is music to the ears of Poilievre’s base. We’ve yet to see the first line of his next election platform but it’ll be interesting to see whether Poilievre has the temerity to tell all Canadians, and not just his supporters, what he plans to do with the CBC if elected.

There’s an old saying that politicians shouldn’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Poilievre has apparently never heard it.

Poilievre is anything but a fool. He knows that he’s not going to be popular with the Press Gallery so he’s intentionally set out to show that they’re the problem, not him.

He couldn’t have chosen a worse foil than David Akin. On his third day on the job, Poilievre let fly against him, calling Akin a "Liberal heckler" for doggedly asking, at the outset of a press conference, whether the new leader would be taking questions.

Anyone who’s ever worked with Akin has a very positive view of his professionalism and work ethic. In progressive quarters he was in fact viewed by some with suspicion.

Akin was once the Sun Media national bureau chief. They were Harper’s Fox News, so calling Akin a Liberal made no sense. Of course Poilievre wanted to fire a warning shot across the bows of uppity journalists: he alone decides and if he says there’ll be only two questions, don’t even dare question him, just write down what he says…

Akin's fit of pique may have been heartfelt, but it could’ve also been a warning from a journeyman journalist to Poilievre: if you treat us like stenographers, we’re going to take you down a peg.

Poilièvre immediately put out a letter to his base decrying the anti-Conservative media and…asking for a donation!

The happiest people in Canada last weekend were Conservative supporters. The happiest people in Canada today are political analysts, commentators and pundits. This is going to be anything but boring!

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

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