OTTAWA — Longtime Conservative MP and finance critic Pierre Poilievre heads toward the 2019 federal election as one of his party’s chief agitators, relishing the task of getting under the skins of the Liberal government’s front-bench ministers.
He doesn’t write lines or questions in advance and only has notes when he’s quoting someone or referring to data, he says. The zingers come out on their own.
“After I say them I decide whether I’m excited about having said it or regretful,” he says, laughing, in an interview at a restaurant in Ottawa’s airport.
One of his favoured approaches is to make fun of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau for being rich. Trudeau’s father Pierre was the heir to a fortune his own father made running Quebec gas stations; Morneau made his money in the family’s human-resources firm Morneau Shepell.
Poilievre calls Trudeau the “millionaire trust-fund prime minister” in the House and similarly wrote on Facebook that Trudeau and Morneau are “trust-fund twins.”
Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer have both said they expect the fall campaign to be one of the nastiest in recent memory.
For Poilievre, the Tories need to focus on economic management, fiscal responsibility and “better quality of life for everyday people.”
“Anything that distracts from that is unproductive and only helps Justin Trudeau. That’s how I would put it,” Poilievre says.
Emphasizing the personal wealth of the two men at the top of the Liberal government is a calculated choice.
So is asking constantly when the federal budget will balance itself. Before Christmas, Poilievre posted a video montage of himself asking the question over and over again. The line that combines two digs in one — reminding viewers that Trudeau said that his Liberals would run small deficits for a couple of years, when forecasts now show them persisting at least into the next decade and likely beyond, and that a growing economy takes care of government deficits fairly easily.
And Poilievre recently posted a joking video of himself sitting in front of a Christmas tree and a fireplace while Christmas music plays lightly in the background. Poilievre pretends to open “Liberal fiscal treats” from Trudeau. Before reading aloud from the government’s long-term fiscal projections, publicized the Friday before the holiday, he pours a hefty slug of white rum into a stein of eggnog and takes a fortifying gulp.
“He is not there because of his financial acumen or auditioning for a future role as minister of finance. He is there to serve as agitator-in-chief to the Liberal government in an area where they are perceived to be vulnerable,” says Tim Powers, a Conservative strategist and vice-chairman of Ottawa firm Summa Strategies. “He has performed well stirring the pot and putting the Liberals on the defensive.”
Opposition leaders like to put established political agitators in key roles so they can get under a government’s skin, says Powers, like Liberal leader Jean Chretien’s deploying of the Liberal “Rat Pack” — a group of young and exuberant Liberals who mounted an energetic opposition to then prime minister Brian Mulroney. Don Boudria, Sheila Copps and Brian Tobin all went on to be Chretien-era ministers.
As for what distractions might knock the Tory campaign off course in 2019, Poilievre says he’s thinking of “nothing in particular.”
Not even Maxime Bernier, the former minister who sat next to him in the House of Commons before Bernier’s high-profile split from the Conservatives? He’s harshly criticized the Liberals on immigration, a line of attack the Conservatives have adopted. And he’s attacked Scheer for his defence of supply management in the dairy sector, charging that it means higher prices for consumers.
“I’ve knocked on 20,000-plus doors since the end of July and I think his name has come up five or six times,” Poilievre says.
Poilievre was quick to challenge questions about Bernier’s new People’s Party and whether it poses a threat at all to his own. He says he’s still waiting to see Bernier’s ideas, that he has no idea what his proposals are. Poilievre rejected quickly the idea that Scheer is taking any of Bernier’s moves into consideration.
“It’s not clear what he’s doing,” he says flatly.
The 39-year-old new father jokes the only job he’s running for is the one Morneau now holds, shooting down questions about whether he has any leadership ambitions of his own.
“I have no plans of that whatsoever,” he says.
Poilievre didn’t support anyone in the Conservative leadership race that put Scheer in charge of the party. And he says he doesn’t know why Scheer chose him as finance critic, but he’s “thankful and grateful.”
“I was rather surprised when the leader offered it to me, to be honest,” he says of the appointment, “because I was neither a rival nor a supporter during the leadership race, so he owed me nothing.”
Poilievre, who has won five consecutive elections in his south-Ottawa riding, said the 2019 election is “anyone’s game at this point.”
“I’m in it for one more and I’m in it to win it, so we’ll see what happens,” he says.
And after four more years? Poilievre recites the old adage: “Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, today’s a gift and that’s why they call it the present.”
Janice Dickson, The Canadian Press