With stunts like last week’s filibuster, the Conservative leader keeps reminding Canadians that he may not have the gravitas it takes to hold down the government’s top job.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on June 12, 2023.
OTTAWA—Maybe the leader of the official opposition simply likes the sound of his own voice. How else to explain the one-man filibuster in the House designed to withhold budget funding for things like climate change?
Usually, a filibuster is supposed to be a team effort. It also has to last more than one parliamentary day before people notice.
I have some experience in that field, joining Don Boudria in a provincial filibuster on gas taxes in Ontario. But we had to talk for at least two days straight before anyone even noticed that it was not business as usual at Queen’s Park.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s filibuster was a solo performance. For those who follow Parliament closely, it was an epic example of his deep knowledge of political history. Poilievre quoted everyone from Churchill to Dionysius in his attempt to explain how Canada is in crisis.
The only one he missed, probably deliberately, was Nero, who appeared to be the model for his ill-timed parliamentary intervention.
Before Poilievre’s speech began, he threatened his own credibility by accusing the prime minister of using the wildfires as a distraction from economic issues. That statement could live to haunt him, as thousands of Canadians who have been evacuated from their homes, in some cases never to return, consider the fires to be far more than a distraction.
The raging fires have all Canadians engaged. For the first time, blazes that are usually confined to remote regions of the country are encroaching on cities and turning the focus to the huge health costs of climate change.
Air warning advisories forced school children inside during recesses and required those with breathing problems to take particular care.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blasted Poilievre for his insouciance to the climate crisis, accusing him of having zero strategy to tackle the challenges that have left the country burning. The verbal Question Period duel was a portent of what Canadians can expect on the campaign trail.
While Poilievre blocks the budget, Canadians are fixated on the devastating effects of wildfires burning out of control across Canada. The smoke was so bad last week that it wafted all the way south to New York City, with the New York Post‘s front page headlines on June 8 reading, “Eh!pocalypse Now,” “Canuck wildfires plunge NYC into eerie, smoky hell,” and, in all-caps, “BLAME CANADA.”
Scientists and politicians are warning us that this frightening start to the forest fire season is going to get worse.
While Poilievre bemoans the price of carbon, thousands of people are bearing the brunt of one of the effects of climate change. Officials say we can expect more flames and floods this summer, and the solution to protecting homeowners from losing everything to forest fires is not obvious, but it certainly does focus the debate on how the climate crisis can cost individuals.
Poilievre wants Canadians to believe that the battle on pricing climate is going to be prohibitively expensive. That pocketbook argument against carbon pricing worked very well when there were no financial comparisons in the window. But when citizens have to stay inside to be able to breathe, it is the first time we collectively witness the potential national cost of reversing course on climate change.
Most people make electoral decisions based on their own personal situation. Inflation is hitting hard and even though it is a global phenomenon, the Liberal government is taking a popularity dive because of the hike in interest rates prompted by the financial situation.
By rights, Poilievre should be benefitting from this volatility. As his message is targeted directly to the pocketbooks of Canadians, he should be in a position to garner political growth. But his political perversity is costly, as he is making his own enemies on the road to power.
Most opposition leaders keep the attention focused on the government, but Poilievre continues to shine the light on himself. He obviously loves to hear the sound of his own voice, as evidenced by the constant smile he wore during his parliamentary filibuster.
With stunts like that, Poilievre keeps reminding Canadians that he may not have the gravitas it takes to hold down the government’s top job.
If people are looking for change, they may be willing to ignore Poilievre’s foibles in the hopes that a turn as prime minister will soften his hard edges. If Donald Trump’s tenure as president is any example, expect the past to be a predictor of the future.
Today’s Nero could still turn the page and get to government.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.