Poilievre tests drives his makeover

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The Conservative leader got the message that softening an image can help a politician achieve their goals. Going glassless won’t win over opponents, but could help with voters.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 24, 2023.

OTTAWA—To do a makeover or not to do a makeover: that is the question.

‘Tis better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all. At least that seems to be the approach taken by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

His decision to wait until the House of Commons adjourned for the summer to strut his new look was wise.

Summer is the best time to usher in a political makeover because politicians are heading to barbecues and picnics with a casual demeanour belying their obvious search for votes.

The first big event was the Calgary Stampede where just about every politico was photographed wearing a pair of jeans, boots, and a Stetson.

Some looked very natural in their attire, and others appeared somewhat uncomfortable. The verdict on Twitter was predictable.

Liberals thought the prime minister looked natural and the Conservative leader looked awkward: surprise, surprise. Conservatives thought the Liberal leader looked awkward and their leader was the natural.

Poilievre’s summer solstice is not just about a stampede getup. He has chosen this time to pursue a personal makeover, ditching his slicked-up haircut and nerdy glasses for some contact lenses and a softer do.

He has also decided to dress down, possibly taking a page from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s relaxed sunny disposition and clothing back in his first successful election.

In the case of Poilievre, the north of the Queensway beltway has been abuzz with comments about his image makeover.

Some purists think he should never have messed with his image because it simply reinforces the fact that he is a politician just like everybody else.

The reality is that he is a politician. And every politician needs to put their best face forward. If that means taking the pomade out of one’s hair, then that is a good thing.

Woe betide the politician who refuses to listen to advice on image.

Sometimes the advice is well-meaning, but difficult. When I was running for the Liberal leadership against Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien, one of my supporters wrote a critique about my look, which was quite blunt. It involved changing my wardrobe—which I did—and losing 20 pounds, which I didn’t.

It’s not that I refused to lose the weight. It was just so difficult to put in the 16-hour days required on the campaign trail while eating healthy. It was not until I left politics that I shed excess weight, and even now it is an ongoing struggle.

My leadership opponents also made subtle changes that might have passed unnoticed but certainly enhanced their electability. In the case of future prime minister Jean Chrétien, he had his teeth capped, which offered up a much better smile when he was pictured in a jean shirt in the official campaign photographs.

At the time, the jean shirt attire was quite avant-garde. Like the Liberals’ policy package, the Red Book, no one had ever launched a campaign in anything less than the blue suit, white shirt and blue tie that was the go-to dress-wear for all successful leaders.

Nowadays, most politicians try to dress down so they don’t appear snooty to the voters.

But not every politician is open to advice on their appearance. When New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair was nipping at the heels of government, he was advised to shave his beard.

Millions of Canadians wear beards, but for Mulcair, his bushy appearance played into the unflattering narrative of “Angry Tom.”

Like it or not, beards make men look fierce, and his refusal to even consider a shave was a mistake. Politics is the art of the possible, and a good politician needs to be flexible enough to change their viewpoint—or appearance—as the situation warrants.

Mulcair’s refusal was probably one of the factors that ultimately contributed to his defeat.

When David Peterson was chosen Ontario Liberal leader, he wore glasses and perspired a lot.

He was given early advice to ditch the specs and powder up before he went on air in any television interview.

From a once-bespeckled opposition leader, Peterson used the changes as a springboard to victory.

He was followed as premier by New Democratic leader Bob Rae, who also ditched his glasses at some point in his political career.

The absence of eyewear didn’t deliver victory, but it did help to look people directly in their eyes.

Political willingness to soften an image can help a politician achieve their goals.

Poilievre has gotten that message. Going glassless won’t win over opponents.

But it could certainly help with voters.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.