Andrew Tumility: Liberals are underestimating Pierre Poilievre, and that's dangerous
The CPC never thought much of Trudeau, and he beat them three times. The LPC can't make that same mistake now.
By: Andrew Tumilty
It has been two weeks since the Conservative Party of Canada chose Pierre Poilievre as its new leader in a resounding first-ballot win where he secured nearly 69 per cent of the points available. This was probably the most unsurprising win for a leadership contest since 2013, when Justin Trudeau won the Liberal leadership on the first ballot with 80 per cent of the points available.
In times of heightened partisanship, there are likely as many Liberals happy to be running against Poilievre as there are Conservatives happy to be running against Trudeau. Both groups are wrong and should be more worried about their opponent’s ability to win, but it is Liberals who are making the bigger mistake.
If Liberals treat Poilievre the way Conservatives have treated Trudeau they’re going to get the same result: an election loss to someone they fundamentally underestimated and misjudged.
Liberals salivating at the opportunity to run against Poilievre should think back to the 2015 campaign. Conservatives did their best to frame Trudeau as someone who shouldn’t be taken seriously. They made campaign ads about how he wasn’t ready, making a now infamous joke about his nice hair. Famed Conservative strategist Kory Teneycke said that if Trudeau walked on the debate stage “with his pants on” he would exceed expectations.
Not only did the future prime minister arrive fully clothed, he rhetorically beat the pants off Tom Mulcair in a viral debate moment, seizing momentum that he never surrendered on his way to a majority victory.
Having underestimated him once, Conservatives spent two more federal elections overestimating the general public's dislike for Trudeau, and lost both times. Given this history, it is concerning that Liberals might be lining up to make the same mistake that their opponents have three times now.
In fairness, Poilievre was practically built in a lab to annoy upper and lower-case liberals alike.
He rails against elites and gatekeepers, after working his entire adult life in politics, including as a government cabinet minister. He appears with anti-government activists, conspiracy theorists, crypto bros and worse. He rants about a loss of freedom in a country where people trying to overthrow the government were allowed to occupy the capital for weeks. Try that in Moscow for a quick lesson in how an actual authoritarian government operates.
Liberals' disdain for Poilievre is understandable, but assuming others feel the same way that is unforgivable.
Liberals need to understand that Poilievre is like Nickelback. Plenty of people think he sounds awful, but the people who don’t are more likely to sing along than they are to tune him out. Some people hear Poilievre talking and hear grievance politics, conspiracy theories and populist anger. Others hear someone telling them that he understands they’re struggling, and wants to make housing a priority in a country where it’s currently a crisis.
If Liberals think everyone hears the same Poilievre that they do, they are ceding the audience that may not go to his rally but may be willing to vote for him at the ballot box. After two minority governments in a row — with Conservatives winning the national popular vote in both — Liberals cannot be in the business of ceding any votes that may be accessible to them.
Even relying on the idea that Poilievre won’t be able to pivot from his leadership rhetoric to win a general election works off the assumption that he has to. By the time the next election is fought, the convoy, vaccine mandates and COVID restrictions will hopefully be even further in the nation’s memory than they already are. Poilievre does not need to pivot from what he said about these issues if no one is talking about them.
Should the Liberal agreement with the NDP hold when the next federal election is held it will have been 10 years since Trudeau defied expectations and was elected promising sunny ways. The Canadians who feel like they’re still out in the cold might be ready for someone new, and they may not care that Liberals think he is too cold and angry to win.
Andrew Tumilty has crafted strategic communications and advice for local Liberal candidates and central party campaigns. He is a senior consultant for strategic communications and issues management with Enterprise Canada in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewTumilty
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