Tom Mulcair: Give it time and Poilievre’s stances can change in an instant

Pierre Poilievre seems to have discovered the charm of saying one thing and the opposite in successive interviews. This is a technique that could quickly begin to raise doubts in the minds of the voting public about what it really represents.

In a year-end interview with my colleague Emmanuelle Latraverse At LCN, Poilievre was very clear: he would not cut any social programs if he became prime minister. Period.

I was on the panel that night covering the interview and the totally unequivocal nature of the response impressed me. I hadn’t tried to play word games. He didn’t try to open a gap. He spoke in simple Anglo-Saxon words, as he used to say. It will not touch social programs. Good.

I have had occasion to repeat that quote many times since then. Why not? I have always believed that social programs were a great way to reduce inequality in our society. I try to give credit where credit is due on all sides of the political spectrum.

I love covering and commenting on the topics and the players and Poilievre had earned my admiration for their statement before the holidays. In my opinion, he was right to support social programs and did not speak with a forked tongue. It was transparent, there were no ifs or buts.

What a difference three months makes. Last Friday (March 22) wasn’t Groundhog Day, but someone should have told the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

Same show (“Le Bilan” by LCN), the same experienced and highly respected journalist, Emmanuelle Latraverse, interviewing Mr. Poilievre. I was back on the panel making the comment. Latraverse returned to the issue of social programs such as dental care and pharmaceutical care.

Screenshot of conservative leader Pierre Poilievre in the March 22, 2024 episode of ‘Le Bilan’ (TVA+ / LCN)

Everyone watching learned that we have another expert Canadian figure skater in addition to our newly crowned world champions. In fact, Poilievre proved to be a multi-sport athlete. When he wasn’t skating in circles, he would do backward crawls to get away from the question.

In response to a direct question, Poilievre stammered something about the jurisdiction of the provinces. He tried to make that smile (it looks carnivorous when he does it) and, awkwardly, tried to move on. He used weasel words like “generally” to describe provincial rights to withdraw from federal social programs. It was anything but convincing.

Poilievre knew full well that his previous unequivocal response made his promise to balance the budget implausible. He clearly hates several of the social programs that the unholy alliance between the Liberals and the NDP has generated.

Now, Poilievre will have to provide something resembling a clear answer. It’s not that I don’t know how to do it. Before Christmas she proved that she can do it. It’s just that she believes that she can give successive answers that contradict each other and that no one will notice.

Poilievre can be an exceptional communicator. He also thinks highly of his opinions. Even great communicators can make mistakes. When you spend your life in front of a microphone, whether on question time or on television, you are bound to make mistakes. Just normal. Subtlety is knowing how to rescue and repair when you have clearly said something that will hurt in the long run. This is still a work in progress for Poilievre.

He hates admitting he was wrong (again, not a rarity in politics). But his profound tendency to try to snow his way out of a difficult situation can, and does, make difficult situations worse.

He invented a reason out of thin air to oppose the Canada-Ukraine trade deal. According to Poilievre, that agreement was tainted because it had a carbon tax. Of course, that was an exaggeration, and opposing a free trade agreement with a country that had been illegally invaded by Russia was not only bad optics, but demonstrated pathetic judgment, in the face of history.

To make matters worse, in a rhetorical flourish with Trudeau, canceled Ukraine as a “distant and foreign” land.

That “far foreign” land, and others in the region, need to be the subject of consistent and thoughtful support from NATO and other allies, not dismissive cheap shots.

The recent departure of Brian Mulroney reminded all Canadians that our country can contribute greatly to shaping world events. Global Affairs Canada has been one of the weakest ministries in Ottawa under Trudeau/Joly. It could be a chance for Poilievre to shine. Rather, it’s another area where he’s proving he’s not really ready for prime time.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly at Canada’s CARICOM Summit in Ottawa, October 18, 2023 (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

With Trump in the bullpen preparing for another four years of chaos, it’s hard to predict how things will play out with Russia’s illegal war.

One thing is certain: the war will end someday. Under what terms? is the key question. Canada’s deep experience in peacekeeping can easily enable us to become a key player in peacemaking. Poilievre could take the time to retract her insults about distant foreign lands and learn something about the complex world of foreign affairs. Or he could keep shooting from the lip.

Poilievre loves simplicity. In fact, it has been a key part of her success. Nothing is complicated. He will balance the budget, reduce taxes, stop crime, build him a house, and make it cheaper for him to shop.

The Liberal minority has gained the comfort of a majority government thanks to Trudeau’s deal with Singh, even though the Liberals received fewer votes than the Conservatives. Quite a feat. We now all understand that Trudeau blatantly lied during the 2015 campaign when he swore that he would abandon Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system. He loves that unfair system and would never change it.

Poilievre will have to learn to pace himself and now that he has some time ahead of him, he should do just that: learn. Eighteen months of Poilievre’s frenetic version could soon begin to wear down Canadians and make them wary of what they would get if they voted for him. If you are wise, you will learn to formulate proposals and responses that do not work. It is not necessary to correct or rationalize them in successive interviews.

If he continues to be a free electron, bouncing around with tons of energy but no coherence, Canadian voters will begin to pay more attention to Poilievre’s contradictions and implausible nostrums. It’s at the top now, but the voting public likes to know what they’re really going to get. That, so far, is not at all clear with Poilievre.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of Canada’s federal New Democratic Party from 2012 to 2017.

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