Robert Libman: What Poilievre can learn from Mulroney

To leave an enduring legacy, resist political opportunism and stick to your convictions.

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Since his passing last month, Brian Mulroney has been praised almost universally as a prime minister who helped shape our collective futures. His funeral last weekend was a touching tribute that lauded his achievements in politics and as a family patriarch.

Most Canadians, however, weren’t as charitable to Mulroney during his tenure. When you initiate major reforms that are bold and controversial such as free trade agreements, constitutional reform or the GST, you naturally spawn detractors. While some policy initiatives ultimately succeed, others don’t. Mulroney proved, though, that governing with conviction, leaving voters to know where you stand — as opposed to trying to win a popularity contest by straddling the fence — leaves more of an enduring legacy and, eventually, positive recognition. 

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His persona from 10-second TV news clips was also in stark contrast to the man who was much more genuine and down to earth, one on one, and in delivering a speech.

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This week, I heard Pierre Poilievre for the first time deliver a speech in person. I’ve had difficulty relating to the persona that comes across through the media — the nasty pettiness at times, the simplistic blaming all the world’s ills on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In person, though, he gave off a different vibe. He was before a sympathetic crowd at a synagogue where he addressed the context of the Mideast war, antisemitism and disgust with a House of Commons resolution adopted last week that many consider shamefully anti-Israel.

Poilievre weaved together an intellectual discourse that was clear and unambiguous. His position may be unpopular with many, certainly on the left of the spectrum, but leaves no doubt as to where he and his party stands. He affirms that he articulates what he believes, even when addressing the Muslim community, as opposed to Trudeau, whom he argues sends his MPs to say one thing in synagogues while other MPs say the opposite when speaking in mosques.

Without addressing here the substance of Poilievre’s argument, I will say that when politicians twist themselves into pretzels to please everyone, they usually please no one in the end, leaving voters wondering what they stand for.

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Poilievre also ruffled feathers recently on housing, calling Mayor Valérie Plante and Mayor Bruno Marchand in Quebec City “incompetent” and criticizing “gatekeepers” at the municipal level for thwarting residential development. Full disclosure: As someone who deals with this issue daily as a professional, it’s not uncommon to hear the word “incompetent” to describe some city administrations regarding the housing crisis.

Polls show Poilievre is on track to win the next election as he rides a tidal wave of anti-incumbency sentiment. To maintain it, however, he must avoid the temptation of being too politically calculating and clever by half. For example, his ploy last week calling for a non-confidence motion on the carbon tax — knowing it wouldn’t pass — made him look petulant.

And his tacit endorsement of Quebec’s Bill 96 language law and the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause doesn’t reconcile with how he portrays himself as a principled protector of the rights of Canadians. Last year, his support of amendments to the Official Languages Act revamp — undercutting protection of Quebec’s linguistic minority — seemed a shallow attempt to curry favour with Quebec nationalists.

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Poilievre’s caustic frankness is resonating with Canadians fed up with the Trudeau government. When a campaign rolls around, however, more attention will focus on how he plans to deal with the realities of governing versus bleating in opposition. If he hopes to emulate Brian Mulroney, he doesn’t necessarily have to be personally popular with all Canadians. But he must be consistent and true with his convictions, and resist political opportunism.

Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, mayor of Côte-St-Luc and a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. X @robertlibman

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