The most interesting battle of the 44th Parliament’s early days has been the recurring back-and-forth between Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre.
This running debate between two of the most prominent figures in Canadian politics maps out some of the fault lines that might define the present and near-future of the national debate.
Once one of Stephen Harper’s most enthusiastically combative lieutenants, Poilievre has spent the past two years cultivating an online following — even playing footsie with some of the Internet’s conspiracy theorists.
This past spring, six months before the fall election, Erin O’Toole decided he didn’t want Poilievre to be the Conservative Party’s spokesperson on fiscal matters and shuffled him to another job. O’Toole’s team insisted it wasn’t a demotion — though it’s not hard to imagine that Poilievre might have been a bit too edgy for the non-threatening and moderate campaign O’Toole ran this fall.
But Poilievre was returned to the position of “shadow finance minister” after O’Toole and the Conservatives stumbled to a disappointing election result in September. Poilievre now seems like something of a spiritual leader for the Conservative side.
Before the election, Poilievre enthusiastically attacked federal spending and the Bank of Canada’s purchase of government bonds. He now points to this fall’s inflation figures as vindication of his arguments. On Twitter, he has adopted the oh-so-clever hashtag of #Justinflation to underline his claim that the prime minister is to blame for recent price increases.
‘Just inflation’ catches on
Poilievre also has taken to using the phrase “just inflation” during question period — barely skirting the rule against using another MP’s proper name — and four other Conservative MPs joined him in doing so in the House on Tuesday.
Inflation has dominated questions from the Conservative side through the first week of the 44th Parliament. So Freeland was prepared when she and Poilievre faced each other directly last Thursday.
After Poilievre needled Freeland for acknowledging that inflation is a “crisis” and challenged her to admit that it’s a “homegrown problem,” Freeland stood and listed off numbers that suggest Canada’s level of inflation is in line with the rest of the G20.
At her next opportunity, Freeland referred Poilievre to the words of a National Post columnist (“The Conservatives may not want to listen to me about inflation, but I suspect they read the National Post”) who wrote that inflation is a “global phenomenon” and also described Poilievre as “charging out of his corner, arms wind-milling.”
Poilievre tried again and Freeland challenged him to tell Canadians that he thinks a pandemic is a time for “austerity.”
In her own way, Freeland is a good match for Poilievre — and each might define something about their respective sides.
An erudite former journalist, Freeland is one of the key figures of the Trudeau era. She was the Liberal leader’s first star recruit nearly a decade ago, then the woman he chose to put front and centre against Donald Trump, and the deputy prime minister he needed after the bruising campaign of 2019. Now she is the first woman to be put in charge of federal fiscal policy.
Poilievre, who casts himself as a populist fighter, is also a keen student of rhetorical combat. He once said that his approach is based on an understanding of the minutiae of legislation and a mastery of “simple facts.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals — content to drown the proceedings in values statements — have not always shown much interest in trying to win question period. In her own news conferences, Freeland has tended to prefer long and careful explanations.
Freeland pushes back
For those reasons, Freeland’s recent efforts stand out.
After former Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz told CTV on Sunday that inflation in Canada was not caused by federal spending, Freeland waved his words in front of the Conservative benches — and reminded the Official Opposition that Stephen Harper appointed Poloz to preside over the bank.
But as more voices have jumped into the inflation fray, Poilievre has pivoted slightly to focus on the rising cost of housing.
On Monday, Poilievre raised the case of a 27-year-old constituent who couldn’t afford to buy a house and wanted to know why prices had increased so much over the last year. In response, Freeland pointed to the money families would save thanks to the federal government’s push for expanded child care.
Vulnerabilities on both sides
Poilievre came back to note that his constituent wouldn’t be able to start a family until he could afford to buy a house.
There are unanswered questions for both sides here.
Freeland might not be directly responsible for the cost of groceries or the price of a detached home in Southern Ontario, but if neither issue resolves itself, the Liberal Party will have to worry about dealing with a frustrated electorate.
Poilievre’s hawkish stance on government spending, meanwhile, is undermined by the fact that his party just ran on a platform that promised nearly identical levels of spending. And the one major cut the Conservatives were willing to campaign on — walking away from billions in promised spending on child care — might be impossible to pursue if Ontario joins the federal child care plan.
Regardless, the cost of living and public spending will be some of the most valuable terrain in Canadian politics for the next while.
A fall economic statement is expected this month, with a budget due in the spring. So Poilievre and Freeland are likely to see a lot of each other in the coming weeks and months.
Beyond that, you can use your own imagination.
If O’Toole were to lose his tenuous grip on the Conservative leadership, attention would quickly focus on Poilievre — either as a potential candidate or as a potentially influential figure in deciding who leads the party next.
Whenever Trudeau decides to step aside, Freeland will be foremost in the pool of possible successors.
But we don’t need to get ahead of ourselves. There is already much to confront over the next year. And much might depend on how well Freeland and Poilievre make their respective arguments.