Jen Gerson: The problem with Poilievre isn't his policies, it's his character
I'm not convinced that some of the most damaging critiques of Poilievre have yet to hit the mark
I always hate to defend anyone in politics. There is no upside. A politician's supporters will hate the likes of me for the role I serve regardless of what I write; his or her detractors will use the opportunity to call me an apologist, or an enabler for a fascist or a tyrant or worse. The fact that this response is inevitable regardless of which politician I happen to be defending — Liberal, Conservative, NDP, Green — is only a sign of the times. One in which it is no longer possible to simply disagree with someone.
But I digress.
With the ascension of Pierre Poilievre to the head of the Conservative Party of Canada last week, I think it's worth addressing two common attacks that niggled at me during the leadership campaign. I don't wish to provide a defence, per se. There are lots of things about Poilievre — his tone, his policies, and his approaches — that I do not like, and I'll get to those in a minute. But the two most mindlessly re-hashed critiques; that he wants to fire the head of the Bank of Canada, and that he suggested cryptocurrency could be used as a hedge against inflation (just before the floor fell out from under crypto) do warrant a degree of context and exploration.
First, on the matter of firing Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem.
In May, Poilievre claimed that Macklem was "surrendering his independence" to the government of the day by using quantitative easing — printing money — to ease the COVID economic crisis. During the party's English-language debate in Edmonton, Poilievre also said he would fire the governor if he ascended to prime minister.
This, very rightly, ticked off a lot of people. The governor of the Bank of Canada ought to be independent of daily partisan machinations for very good reason; we don't want the person setting inflation targets to be subject to political pressure, otherwise we would risk a lot more money printing to pay for social programs in the short term, and devaluation of our currency in the long term. So threatening to fire the governor because he or she failed to hew to an incoming government's wishes is a bad idea. We want that person to stay above the partisan fray.
A Conservative ought to understand this better than most.
Further, much of our inflationary woes is the result of international supply chain issues, which is something beyond the governor's control. The bank's defenders have been quick to make this point. Looking at overall increase in the monetary supply, including the significant amounts of money that was pumped into the economy for pandemic relief measures, in addition to the thwack of cash sitting on the banks’ books in the form of potential debt, I suspect that this argument is still highly debatable.
Regardless, the response to Poilievre's comments from the bank itself was interesting. Although he didn't call for the firing of his boss, Paul Beaudry, the deputy governor of the Bank conceded that Poilievre had at least a smidgen of a point.
"The aspect that we should be held accountable is exactly right," Beaudry told a news conference in June. "Right now we completely understand that lots of Canadians can be frustrated at the situation," he said. "It's difficult for a lot of people. And we haven't managed to keep inflation at our target, so it's appropriate [that] people are asking us questions."
Macklem himself acknowledged that he had misjudged the possibility for a serious inflationary period back in April. He deserves praise for admitting this! It's difficult for people in senior roles to admit they were wrong and seek to course correct. One might even argue that his humility on this point demonstrates a personality that is particularly well-suited for his role.
So I want to reiterate that I think threatening to fire Tiff Macklem is a bad idea. It directly undermines the independence of his office, and it places blame on the bank for inflation, when the causes of that inflation are, at best, not his fault, and at worst, still not perfectly understood.
That said — again, messing with the independence of the bank is bad, m’kay — there is a historical precedent for this kind of institution-meddling chicanery. The last politician to threaten an unpopular Bank of Canada governor for political gain was that notable far-right populist ... Jean Chrétien. That was back in 1993, in a situation that almost perfectly mirrors the economic and political dynamics of today.
In the '90s, the incumbent Conservatives had appointed Bank of Canada governor John Crow, who had set interest rates to about seven per cent in order to keep inflation in check. If that figure, which is closer to historical norms than we like to remember, makes you eye your mortgage renewals a little warily, so it should. The Liberals, who were gunning to take over the government from the Conservatives, had argued that Crow's obsession on maintaining low inflation had worsened a recession; they wanted Crow to prioritize reducing Canada's unemployment rate instead.
Of course, if that sounds like a potential prime minister taking swipes at an ostensibly independent agent of the Bank of Canada, well, that's because that's exactly what it was. And media at the time recognized this at the time.
Chrétien didn't come right out and say he'd fire Crow. However, in an interview with the Globe and Mail in September of 1993, he was asked what he would do if Crow disagreed with a Liberal government's priorities. Chrétien replied: "I'm telling you that he's an official of the government."
Although the governor is independent, the government's finance minister meets regularly with him or her, and the minister is permitted by the Bank of Canada Act to issue instructions. It was widely understood at the time, though, that if an acting government were to issue such instructions, and the governor were to disagree with them, that it would be a matter of convention for the governor to resign.
So while Chrétien didn't come right out and say "I'm going to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada," he did threaten to issue directions that would force said governor to resign.
There was no need for Chrétien to do so, however. Luckily for the Liberals, Crow's term expired in January of 1994, three months after the Liberals were elected to an astonishing majority in Parliament. Crow's term was not renewed — although it was widely expected that a Conservative government would have kept him on.
Thus the Liberals could remain pure at heart.
If Poilievre is elected prime minister, he will not be so fortunate. Macklem's term runs to 2027.
For the record, I think Chrétien's decision to play with the independence of the role during an election campaign was a bad decision that did harm to the credibility of the position. I don't relish the thought of a Conservative government doing likewise; in fact, it should be Conservative politicians who are most adamant about preserving the bank's institutional independence, for the reasons stated above. However, I do think the parallel between Chrétien and Poilievre is stark in this example; it's one of those little examples that demonstrate that Canada's actual ideological divide is about the width of a hopscotch, and that the difference between "centrists" or "moderates" and what we call "far right" or "conservative" is often not rooted in policy but rather in language and tone.
The second shot levelled at Poilievre — that he argued that crypto could be used as a hedge against inflation just before the value of crypto crashed — is mostly just funny. He also argued that he would like to see Canada normalize crypto, as he sees it as an alternative store of decentralized wealth that can’t be meddled with via money printing.
The timing was clearly bad luck for Poilievre, but also gave off the impression that he was a financial dilettante whose dudebro-level understanding of money was picked up off YouTube.
To say nothing of the fact that there are actually lots of great shows and podcasts streamed on YouTube on any number of topics — the notion that crypto, and Bitcoin in particular, could be used as a hedge against inflation has long been a topic of discussion and debate in entirely mainstream financial outlets. Bitcoin is in limited supply and is highly unregulated, which has long made it attractive to both the black market, and to investors who simply do not trust the current state of fiat currency.
Like that other "hedge against inflation" — gold — there are some investors who go apocalyptic on the asset. We all know of "goldbugs" who store yellow bars along with their freeze-dried food packages and bullets. You shouldn’t do that. But that doesn't mean crypto can’t have a role to play in an otherwise well-managed and diversified investment portfolio.
Back in January, an analyst suggested that Bitcoin could compete with gold as a "store of value" asset over time, which would give it a value almost double of where it sat at its peak. That analyst worked not for some obscure YouTube blogger, but for Goldman Sachs. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this has not panned out — at least for the time being — as gold has outperformed crypto in this asset class. I would also point out that the day is young; we can't say where crypto will be in 10 years. It may be nowhere. But the fact that this is being debated in places like Forbes should suggest that Poilievre is not necessarily delving into the rabbit hole to come up with his economic theories — rather, it suggests that most of his critics are unfamiliar with what crypto is, and how it's being discussed in entirely mainstream financial media outlets.
Bitcoin certainly suffered a volatile few years — as have most other commodities. And much of that volatility can be explained by a combination of macroeconomic factors, in addition to the fact Bitcoin has transitioned into a mainstream asset, attracting scores of capital from both amateur and establishment investors. (The volatility of crypto as a whole has also revealed a hell of a lot of fraud and nonsense, so caveat emptor.) However, Bitcoin is still trading at above $26,000 Canadian — demonstrating a pretty good return for anyone who invested in the stuff in the distant era of, uh, 2020.
I don't know what the future of crypto holds, but I can be humble enough to concede that Poilievre may get the last laugh on this file yet.
Look, there's a lot about Poilievre and his tone that I do not like. I think that legitimizing the trucker convoy by meeting with them is going to risk alienating a lot of Canadians. Most of the people who attended that protest were ordinary Canadians who were sick of vaccine mandates. Fine. But at least some were extremists; some were anti-vax conspiracy theorists, and a few were potentially violent, as we saw in Coutts, AB, where weapons were seized. At a minimum, many of the protesters gathered in Ottawa under some kind of deranged plan to stage a peoples’ coup. Is this a crowd an ostensibly mainstream politician should make a show of meeting? Was that responsible or reasonable?
I don't like the way Poilievre strategically plays off the media — we saw a glimpse of that last week when he fundraised off a press conference in which he was interrupted by reporter David Akin. (Akin apologized.) The fact that he has turned his guns on reporters on Twitter is beneath any serious potential leader.
I also have concerns about his rhetoric on oil and gas, which seems to insinuate some kind of return to a tariff-based National Energy Program to keep resources in the country.
I think Poilievre's character has rightly come under question, and as we all know, character is destiny. He's made terrible remarks about First Nations people, for example. He opposed same-sex marriage in favour of civil unions in 2005, even though his own adopted father is apparently gay and in a long-term partnership. (Like most Conservatives, Poilievre has since come around on the issue.)
Of course, I cannot rule out the possibility that Poilievre is some kind of crypto-fascist, as his most ardent critics contend, although I don’t think that’s the most likely scenario.
I do worry about who he is surrounding himself with, and I fear that he's so fixated on shitpost own-the-libs memery that he will squander a once-in-a-generation opportunity to impose some necessary reforms on everything from inefficient taxation and health care, to the state of law and order. Poilievre will not “pivot” to a more moderate tone, there is no incentive for him to do so.
Even if Poilievre’s threat to fire Macklem, and his endorsement of crypto, are critiqued in somewhat overheated tones, what does it say about him as a person and potential prime minister that these are his solution to Canada’s inflationary woes? The problem, here, isn’t so much the policies, as the character these policies reveal.
I have every intention of continuing to be grumpy and disillusioned and disappointed in the state of our political class because that's the role I serve. But I also believe that I have a duty to be fair, and I'm not convinced that some of the most damaging critiques of Poilievre have yet to hit the mark. And if you’re concerned about Poilievre’s most damaging habits and tendencies, hitting the mark should be the aim of your endeavours.
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