Pierre Poilievre| Photo: Manning Centre – Flickr | Creative Commons 2.0| cropped from original | license linked at bottom of article Pierre Poilievre| Photo: Manning Centre – Flickr | Creative Commons 2.0| cropped from original | license linked at bottom of article

Canada’s new hard-right Conservative leader is dangerous due to the vacuum on the parliamentary centre and left, argues John Clarke

It was no great surprise that Pierre Poilievre’s bid for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada was crowned with success when the results came in on 10 September. The hard-right Poilievre, enthusiastically backed by the reactionary party base, won on the first ballot with 68.15% of the vote. His main rival, Jean Charest, representing the wing of the party that still embraces respectability, and that favours a ‘moderate’ approach, was left in the dust with just 16.07%.

More than 400,000 votes were cast but, with his appeal on the right extending well beyond the normal Tory ranks, Poilievre was able to bring in 300,000 new party members during his campaign. He did, however, secure strong support among the longstanding party faithful and it is striking that 62 of the 118 Tory MPs backed him in his bid for leadership.

Echoes of Trump

The politics of Pierre Poilievre have predictably, and with some justification, been compared to those of Donald Trump. He has certainly embraced a right-wing populist approach and cultivated a base of support with that strategy. He has not been at all hesitant to lend his name to far-right initiatives, like the infamous ‘Freedom Convoy,’ and to co-operate very publicly with their key organisers.

Poilievre has also taken up a Trump-like attack on the very modest regulatory protections that exist for workers, consumers and the environment on the grounds that they restrict business operations and kill jobs. He has coined the term ‘Fire the Gatekeepers’ to popularise his notion that all barriers to profit making should be removed, regardless of the harmful consequences that result.

The new Tory leader’s heroes include, as might be expected, the late Margaret Thatcher and he has been only too happy to associate himself with Canada’s most notorious right-wing academic, Jordan Peterson. Indeed, he was widely condemned when he appeared on a podcast with Peterson and, borrowing a term that is popular in far-right circles, expressed his preference for the use of ‘Anglo-Saxon words.

Poilievre is anxious to cut social programmes and he firmly opposed the improved levels of income support that were provided during the pandemic lockdowns. He is prepared to countenance only a ‘tiny survival stipend for all low-income people’ and has been described as ‘a reactionary austerity monger … someone who will fight unions, suffocate the public sector, and cut welfare, even if those policies prove highly unpopular’.

The coronation of Poilievre as the leader of the Conservatives is the culmination of a protracted struggle for control of the party between a relatively moderate wing who wanted to preserve the role of sober and trusted political steward of Canadian capitalism, and a right-wing element ready to accommodate the reactionary anger that is growing at the base and on the periphery of the party. This is part of an international trend that has affected mainstream conservative parties since the Great Recession and, to an even greater degree, since the onset of the global pandemic. The accelerating rightward trajectory of the US Republican Party expresses this with the greatest clarity possible.

Attack dog

The Conservative Party of Canada has moved decisively to the right just as the cost-of-living crisis plays out and the threat of a major economic slump looms over the country. As central banks proceed with the driving up of interest rates, Canada is particularly vulnerable to the inevitable effects of this course of action. ‘Canadian households are easily the most indebted in the G7 and among the most in the entire OECD.’ The threat of a major housing crash, with disastrous wider economic consequences is very serious in this situation.

Such instability and uncertainty can only fuel the reactionary anger that the Tories are drawing upon, and it can only be expected to intensify. Presently, Canada’s main political representative of the neoliberal centre, the Liberal Party, holds power, but it is increasingly discredited and lacks a parliamentary majority. Disgracefully, the Liberals function in the House of Commons on the basis of a ‘confidence-and-supply agreement’ that provides them with the ongoing support of the social-democratic NDP.

In the highly uncertain political climate that exists at this time, it is by no means impossible that some political crisis might force the Trudeau Liberals into an election. In that eventuality, a Conservative government, headed up by Pierre Poilievre, is entirely possible. The assumption that his hard-edged brand of conservative politics renders him ‘too extreme’ to be electable might well be unfounded. He has a large and enthusiastic base, and the lack of a credible and effective left alternative might well give him the opening he needs. A decidedly right-wing provincial government was recently re-elected in Ontario, based on record low voter turnout, with the support of only 18% of eligible voters.

Even if the Poilievre-led Tories are unable to take power and form a government, they will still be able to play a charged and dangerous role from the opposition benches. In conditions of economic downturn, stubborn inflation and rapidly declining living standards, they can be relied upon to mount a single minded and effective challenge to the Liberals that is likely to drive the latter to the right.

In capturing the Tory leadership, Poilievre significantly sharpens questions that have emerged within Canadian political life. The dramatic move to the right by the Tories, for which he can take credit, renders the feebleness of the political centre and the vacuum on the left even more stark than it already was. Without a bold left alternative that can meaningfully counter the right-wing ‘solutions’ that Poilievre is peddling, it’s hard to see how he can fail to gain momentum and consolidate his political base.

The immediate prospects for Poilievre’s unabashed and forceful right populism being met by a correspondingly single minded left electoral alternative are not very encouraging at the present moment. This problem is not going to be remedied by simply convincing NDP parliamentarians to adopt some rather more progressive policy positions. The developments that are needed won’t come from party conferences or be generated on Parliament Hill, but they can emerge from the social resistance taken up by workers and communities under attack.

Though it has not yet taken the form of a unified movement or a sustained campaign, there are strong indications that such resistance is emerging in Canada in response to the cost-of-living crisis and the threat of economic slump. The number of strikes in Ontario this year, for example, is set to surpass anything that has been seen since before the Great Recession.

An effective electoral alternative to Poilievre’s party is certainly needed, but this will need to be linked to mass action by unions and social movements. This must be the response to the attempt to impose the burden of the crisis on working-class people, whether it comes from the Trudeau Liberals or a reconstituted hard-right Tory Party under Pierre Poilievre.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.