A photo of the Leader of the Opposition Pierre Poilievre in the House of Commons during Question Period on September 21, 2022.
Leader of the Opposition Pierre Poilievre in the House of Commons during Question Period on September 21, 2022. Credit: CPAC Credit: CPAC

Let’s face it: Pierre Poilievre is a dead-ringer for someone you’d meet at a private school debating tournament.

I mean no disrespect — either to the new Conservative leader, or to private school debating tournaments (which I confess to attending in my youth). I just mean that all the media hype about him as a fiery populist is just talkity-talk. In truth, Poilievre is more debating nerd than populist — by a country mile.

Indeed, the notion that he’s a populist — someone who backs working people over elites — isn’t just wrong, it’s downright silly. He’s actually the anti-populist: instead of championing the interests of working people, he routinely crushes those interests.

Sure, he’s quick to bad-mouth the “elite” — you know, people like teachers, public health officials, journalists or anyone who supports vaccine mandates or thinks it’s bad to honk horns all night while people try to sleep.

Strangely missing from his elite are CEOs, billionaires, hedge fund managers and other corporate bigwigs who actually make the decisions that shape our economy and impact the pocketbooks of ordinary Canadians.

Today’s corporate elite is focused on suppressing the suddenly revived aspirations of working people to make more money.

This desire to make more money — clearly a “pocketbook issue” — typically requires workers to act collectively. On their own, they have little power; but together, they have a lot of clout in taking on corporate owners — as workers have recently rediscovered.

So where does Poilievre, the fiery populist, come down in this classic struggle? Well, he’s solidly on the side of the corporate owners who want to make it hard for workers to flex their muscles through unions. He has a long history of pushing anti-union legislation and denouncing “union bosses.”

In 2020, he proclaimed himself dedicated to bringing “right-to-work” laws to Canada. These notorious U.S. laws, with roots in the Jim Crow era, are aimed at undermining unions. Barack Obama said they’re about “the right to work for less money.”

Poilievre has enthusiastically served wealthy interests most of his life. As a teenager, he was already focused on helping the rich, arguing in an essay competition that, if he were prime minister, he’d abolish the capital gains tax — an odd policy choice for a 19-year-old supposedly grappling with how to make the world a better place. Poilievre didn’t win the contest, but he landed a job with its corporate sponsor.

He also blended seamlessly into the right-wing Alberta crowd, glomming onto Preston Manning, Stockwell Day and Ezra Levant. But his conservative juices really started flowing when he served as a pit-bull in the cabinet of Stephen Harper, acting out the prime minister’s basest instincts.

Poilievre could be dubbed Harper Lite, or maybe Harper XXL; he’s got all Harper’s ideological rigidity, mean-spiritedness and ruthlessness — just without the charm.

Of course, Harper is now so pre-pandemic. So Poilievre, trying to project a more up-to-date persona, has made himself over as a woke-kicking, convoy-loving freedom fighter.

This shiny new Poilievre has grabbed lots of attention. But beneath all that bareback freedom-riding, Poilievre is, as he illustrated in a 2012 op-ed in the National Post, really just a pedantic bore, with conventional right-wing ideas.

Echoing the late Milton Friedman, Poilievre has called for replacing the “entire welfare state with a tiny survival stipend for all low-income people” — presumably just enough so that they don’t actually starve.

This lack of empathy for vulnerable people is curious, given that, as Poilievre himself points out, he was born to an unwed teenage mother who gave him up for adoption. It turned out fine for him; he thrived in his adopted middle-class family.

Lesson learned: as long as you’re OK, others in need (including those in the same desperate situation as one’s mother) can be kicked to the curb.

Let’s not be fooled. Poilievre remains a dedicated corporate warrior. But he’s hoping we’ll see him as a fresh-faced hero leading the masses out of the Ottawa snowbank to the land of freedom. You don’t need to be on the far shores of woke to smell a rat.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...