It is often said that one way to get a sense of what the future may hold is to take a close look at how similar circumstances may have unfolded in the past. Indeed, an historical perspective may be instructive when looking at the relative rise of Pierre Poilievre and the Conservative Party’s increasing favour with Canadians.
One of the common variables of political success is that it is often directly linked to a country’s economic success. When the economy is good, the government in power tends to get the credit. When the economy is showing signs of distress, the government in power gets the blame.
Over the past year and a half Canadians have increasingly faced an affordability crunch. Inflation has risen at a pace not seen since the early 1980’s. Interest rates ratcheted up, in tandem. Food and gas prices soared. Rising mortgage rates and high rents have made housing an even more precarious proposition for many.
A historical perspective
First elected in 1968, Pierre Elliott Trudeau presided over a weakening economy in the early 1970’s and again in the early 1980’s. In 1972 his majority was reduced to a two-seat minority. But he preserved that government for the next two years by striking an agreement with the New Democratic Party (NDP). Sound familiar? Two years later he won another majority. But by the time the 1980’s arrived; Canada’s economy was back in the doldrums. Looking back, it is incredible to believe that interest rates approached 18%! By 1984, the Liberal government was replaced by Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party promising one simple message, “Jobs, Jobs Jobs”.
Throughout Canada’s more recent economic turmoil, arguably Poilievre has owned the “affordability message”. Wherever he goes he hammers home what he believes is the number one issue on the minds of everyday Canadians—the price of food, gas, home heating, rent, mortgage payments. It’s a consistent message, not unlike Brian Mulroney’s in 1984. And today’s polls suggest that if there was an election tomorrow, Poilievre has the potential for a victory not seen since Mulroney’s historic landslide win.
Late last week, the Trudeau government made a move to ease the affordability burden for many Canadians by pausing the “carbon tax” for those who have certain home fuel heating sources. As much as the move can be applauded for trying to help Canadians soon to face cold winters and high fuel costs, the ‘half-measure’ means that other Canadians who use different forms of energy to heat their homes won’t get the same benefit. The move has effectively pitted one part of the country against the other, not unlike Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP) did in the early 1980’s. Western Canadians still blame him for the mass departure of oil and gas exploration from Alberta and Saskatchewan 40 years ago. Does Justin Trudeau’s legacy policy now risk creating similar alienation?
The natural political upshot for Pierre Poilievre is “I told you so”—pointing out that the Trudeau Liberals are prepared to savage their signature environmental policy in order to salvage votes. Whether that is fair to say, or not, doesn’t really matter in the realm of political battle. The public is already split on the merits of a carbon tax. Now parts of the country are asking the Justin Trudeau government: “what about me?”.
Meanwhile, Pierre Poilievre’s “get to know me” TV and social media ad campaign continues. One regular ad focuses on his upbringing and his parents who were teachers. And as he talks about affordability, he is also talking more about bringing back “common sense” to dealing with the difficult issues facing Canadians.
Whether it is by happenstance or intentional, for political junkies it is hard to miss that phrase “common sense”, famously adopted by a relatively unknown North Bay teacher almost 30 years ago. Mike Harris marched his “Common Sense Revolution” right into Queen’s Park winning a majority government in Ontario in 1995 after a decade of Liberal and NDP governments.
If we are seeing another repeat of history in the making, only time will only tell. It is hard to argue, though, that there aren’t more than a few signals that maybe “what goes around, may well come around”?