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Trudeau and Poilievre have very different theories of change

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after Poilievre's remarks at a rally in support of Israel at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after Poilievre's remarks at a rally in support of Israel at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The first days of Parliament in 2024 sounded a lot like the last days of Parliament in 2023. The basic disputes and arguments are by now familiar, even to those who haven't been paying much attention.

But beneath the back-and-forth over the Liberal government's carbon tax and the Conservative leader's agenda, Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre are also duelling over very different theories of change.

Trudeau used the theme of "change" to begin his remarks to a Liberal gathering just before Christmas last year. Canadians, he said, are living through a "period where we're all experiencing a lot of change."

"Change in interest rates. Change in the world order. Change in the environment. Change in the way we work. Change in culture," he added.

All of this change, he said, "can be disorienting."

It's fair to ask whether there was ever a time in human history that was relatively free of change. But that doesn't undermine Trudeau's observation, or the unsettled feeling that may now be lurking in the guts of many Canadians.

"But this is why the choices we make right now are so consequential," Trudeau continued. "Because the world is going through change and we need to make sure that this change benefits Canadians."

Political leaders, he concluded, need to decide whether they want to "tackle" the problems facing Canada or "exploit" those problems. The implication behind Trudeau's framing is pretty clear.

The change that Poilievre sees

Poilievre also talks about change — he did again on Sunday. But he talks about a different kind of change.

"You know, when people stop me on the streets, they tell me they don't recognize the country," Poilievre said in remarks to his parliamentary caucus to mark the return of Parliament.

He said he spoke recently in an airport with a woman who asked him, "Where's my Canada? What happened to this place?"

It used to be, Poilievre said, that this woman could comfortably afford housing and food in a neighbourhood that was safe. His refrain on Sunday was that such things are no longer possible "after eight years of Trudeau."

"The good news is life wasn't like this before Justin Trudeau and it won't be like this after he's gone," Poilievre said.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre rises during question period on Thursday, February 1, 2024 in Ottawa.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre rises during question period on Thursday, February 1, 2024 in Ottawa.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre rises during question period on Thursday, February 1, 2024 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

That wasn't the first time Poilievre has used that particular line — it goes back at least as far as his speech to the Conservative convention last September. It underpins a sweeping thesis that claims Trudeau is not only to blame for some of the bigger problems Canada is facing, but that his time in office has marked a departure from the way things used to be.

"Think back to how we lived when Justin Trudeau was elected. Interest rates and inflation were rock bottom. Taxes were falling faster than at any time in Canadian history," Poilievre told his audience at the convention last fall. "The budget was balanced. Crime had fallen by 25 per cent — so low that small town folks often left their doors unlocked. Our borders were secure. Housing costs were half of what they were today."

Poilievre said ordinary Canadians "feel like strangers in their own country, with how horribly things have changed."

Poilievre's concerns include crime (the crime rate has increased over the last several years after reaching a historic low) and the opioid epidemic (which continues to defy government efforts). The Conservative leader argues that the Liberal government has made both problems worse.

Much of what's wrong with the way things are can be traced, Poilievre suggests, to higher levels of federal spending under Trudeau. For Poilievre, that spending marked a particularly dramatic break with the past and with a historic consensus.

"Balancing the budget to keep inflation and interest rates low was the unanimous policy of all the major political parties at all levels of government for 30 years, right up to the radical departure [in 2015]," he said.

The fight to frame change

It's worth noting that the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney (name-checked by Poileivre in his convention speech) never actually balanced the federal budget. Stephen Harper's Conservative government also failed to balance the budget in most of its nine years in office — and whether the budget was actually in the black when it left office is debatable.

Much of the initial spike in inflation was linked to global factors. And an analysis published last year suggested that while federal spending could be linked to higher inflation and interest rates, much of that spending was done during the pandemic. (Meanwhile, the impact of the carbon tax on food prices might be small.)

It's indisputable that Trudeau's Liberals broke with the rhetorical and political consensus that treated budgetary balance as the federal government's pre-eminent goal — and the merits and effectiveness of Liberal fiscal policy are up for debate, including among people who consider themselves Liberals.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to local entrepreneurs at SDG Idea Factory, an incubator built around the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, in Kitchener, Ont. on Friday, February 2, 2024.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to local entrepreneurs at SDG Idea Factory, an incubator built around the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, in Kitchener, Ont. on Friday, February 2, 2024.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to local entrepreneurs at SDG Idea Factory, an incubator built around the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, in Kitchener, Ont. on Friday, February 2, 2024. (Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

But if the way things were in 2015 is to be a point of reference, it's equally fair to note how much higher greenhouse gas emissions were projected to be back then, how many more Indigenous communities lacked access to clean drinking water, how many more children were living in poverty and how much higher child care fees were.

Given how much Poilievre has complained about "wokeism," it's tempting to wonder whether his appeals to the way things used to be are also meant to speak to those who are uncomfortable with broader aspects of some recent social issues and debates.

And given how fiercely the Conservatives have opposed the Liberal government's "sustainable jobs" legislation — previously known as "just transition" legislation — they also might be running against the very idea (or threat) of change.

Things are changing — the planet's climate certainly is. And Trudeau can argue that significant parts of his government's agenda have been about meeting the need for change and preparing Canadians for the future.

But it's on his ability to "tackle" the problems of today that he is being challenged — and earlier action on housing would have put him in a better place now, even if provincial and municipal governments deserve significant amounts of blame for the current situation.

Opposite Trudeau, Poilievre is laying the rhetorical groundwork to do things very differently — even if he frames it in terms of simply changing things back to way they were. The more he can convince people that the country is in terrible shape — and that everything currently wrong with it can be blamed on Trudeau — the easier it becomes for him to justify doing something close to the opposite.