Canada’s brashest Conservative is surging in the polls. His biggest problem: An election could be two years away.
Canada’s Liberals can no longer deny it. Pierre Poilievre, the fiery Conservative leader set on burning Justin Trudeau’s signature achievements to the ground, is the favorite to win the country’s next election.
Poilievre’s party has vaulted ahead in the polls by harnessing post-pandemic anxiety — high inflation, rising interest rates, and the runaway cost of home ownership in Canada. He fills hotel ballrooms and banquet halls with rowdy crowds, even during a summer season when most voters tend to tune out touring politicians.
Polls suggest he’s now more personally popular than the third-term Trudeau — and by some measures, it’s not even close.
The 44-year-old Poilievre is not as unpredictable as Donald Trump, and he’s not fighting culture wars with the vigor of Ron DeSantis. Instead, Poilievre is refashioning his own brand of conservatism.
He occasionally nods to world-government conspiracy theorists by mocking the “globalist Davos elites” who run the World Economic Forum. He is open to Conservative MPs introducing anti-abortion bills, but promises they won’t become law if he’s prime minister.
He espouses traditional conservative disdain for government spending and regulation, and woos moderates with one-liner policies. For every dollar of new federal spending, Poilievre would require equivalent cuts somewhere else. He favors drug treatment programs over decriminalization. He wants to export more fossil fuels, but also embraces renewable energy.
Poilievre appears to be building a winning coalition that bridges populists and social conservatives with center-right moderates. An election could come as early as next year, or as late as the fall of 2025, depending on the durability of a governing agreement between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party. But when that time comes, Trudeau’s team shouldn’t be surprised if they’re the betting underdog.
Poilievre was the undisputed star this month when more than 2,500 Conservative Party faithful gathered for a policy convention in Quebec City. The Centre des congrès de Québec buzzed at Poilievre’s ability to reunite a party that had splintered since losing power to Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015.
Delegates scooped up merch with Poilievre’s name on it. They waited for hours in the convention hall to hear him speak. His remarks topped the 60-minute mark, and still hundreds lined up for one-on-one photos with their leader in a makeshift receiving line.
“I could not find a single faction that didn’t think he was doing a good job, or weren’t moved by the poll performance,” Chad Rogers, a partner at Crestview Strategy with extensive experience in Conservative movements, told POLITICO. “There was no one who wanted to show up and litigate the argument of ‘This is why I don’t like his style,’ or ‘This is what he’s gotta do.’”
Harnessing a housing crisis
Poilievre, the party’s fourth leader in eight years, appears to connect with regular voters more effectively than even Trudeau, whose own rise to power was fueled by a so-called Sunny Ways promise of hope for better times ahead.
Trudeau often makes the case for his government’s success with dry statistics and favorable global rankings. Poilievre talks about feelings and promises simple solutions: lower taxes, smaller government and a pledge to let people live more freely.
His first order of business in government would be canceling the government’s carbon tax. His catchphrase — “axe the tax” — is fit for a bumper sticker. He caps most rallies with the same refrain: “Your home. My home. Our home. Bring it home.”
His opponents dismiss the crowd pleasers as empty sloganeering.
Poilievre also mixes in bombast at rallies, hurling insults at the 51-year-old Trudeau’s government and faceless “gatekeepers” — even municipal officials who approve housing permits.
At most events, Poilievre repeats a promise to defund the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — a guaranteed winner in crowds packed with critics of the public broadcaster and skeptics of mainstream media.
“Pierre is one of the best political communicators that I have ever seen,” says Sen. Denise Batters, an early supporter of Poilievre’s leadership campaign who played a key role in dumping the party’s former leader, Erin O’Toole, early in 2022.
Batters pointed to Poilievre’s rally-style convention speech, in which he closed on an image of a young couple savoring a home they could afford, one of them clutching a hard-earned paycheck on a warm midsummer night.
“He was calling to mind this imagery of something to long for, something to wistfully look at,” says Batters. “If he had given that part of the speech even several years ago, somebody would have thought, ‘Why are you even talking about that? That’s not a big deal.’”
Back in 2015, the average price of a home in Canada was C$413,000. The Canadian Real Estate Association reported a massive mid-pandemic spike past C$800,000 before gradually dropping to C$668,000 in July.
Poilievre’s housing solution: fight cities that don’t build homes.
He promises to force municipalities to increase homebuilding by 15 percent annually or face penalties — including withheld federal funding. He’d also boost funding to cities that beat targets. Poilievre says his government would hear complaints from residents about cities that engage in “egregious NIMBYism” that constrains supply.
“When complaints are well-founded, we will withhold infrastructure dollars until municipalities remove the blockage and allow homebuilding to take place,” he has said.
The Tories would grant federal funding to cities that “pre-approve building permits for high-density housing and employment on all available land surrounding transit stations.” They promise to sell off 15 percent of the 30,000-plus federal buildings owned by Ottawa.
He has found particular traction by zeroing in on the public anxiety that has risen as housing demand has outpaced supply and interest rates have climbed sharply, pricing out would-be buyers and straining family budgets in a country where most mortgages carry rates that adjust every few years.