Pierre Poilievre gains support at Justin Trudeau’s expense as the Conservatives put a tumultuous year behind them
OTTAWA — Candice Bergen’s announcement Wednesday that she’s resigning as a member of Parliament caps a year of turmoil for the Conservative party, which is only now beginning to find its footing under new leader Pierre Poilievre.
The departure of the party stalwart and former interim leader — a Stephen Harper-era veteran tasked with trying to hold together a fractious party after an internal civil war last year — is the latest sign yet of the generational change underway within the Conservatives as Poilievre plots a course toward the next federal election.
Heading into the winter session of Parliament, he’s shifted his communications approach, reframing his party’s top-line argument to Canadians as a narrative about how long Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have been in power and the mistakes made under their watch.
The move reflects what a new poll suggests is happening out in the voter landscape: people are losing faith in the Liberals.
A new survey from Abacus Data suggests fewer Canadians think the country is headed in the right direction than at any point in the past three years.
Meanwhile, the majority of voters think the Trudeau government isn’t focused enough on the key issues of the cost of living, housing and health care.
Those same voters think a Conservative government would focus on them more.
“If voters are focused on the economy or the cost of living, the Conservatives are likely to benefit as many swing voters think they will focus more on that issue than the Liberals, and many feel the Liberals aren’t focused enough on those issues,” the Abacus analysis of the data says.
The numbers show a bump for Poilievre’s team — the Abacus survey suggests they’ve opened up an eight-point lead over the Liberals.
But, cautions Abacus CEO David Coletto, that can’t entirely be seen as a win for Poilievre himself.
“This Conservative lead is more about dissatisfaction with the Liberals than enthusiasm for the Conservatives. Pierre Poilievre’s personal image has neither improved nor deteriorated — perhaps a win, given the environment,” he wrote.
The survey of 1,500 Canadian adults was conducted online from Jan. 27 to 30. Online polls are not considered truly random, so it cannot be assigned a margin of error.
The Conservatives have seen the numbers break their way before, but still leave them heartbroken. They won the popular vote, but failed to capture the majority of seats in both the 2019 and 2021 elections.
In 2021, they even lost seats under Erin O’Toole’s leadership, one of many irritations that ultimately led to O’Toole’s dismissal as leader by his own MPs.
Bergen’s resignation Wednesday came a day before the first anniversary of that coup, and the subsequent vote that installed her as interim leader.
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She had previously signalled she wouldn’t be running again in the next election, and said Wednesday she has faith in the future of the party under Poilievre.
Bergen’s chief task was rebuilding a shattered team even as the nation’s capital — and the nation’s politics — were mired in the anti-government “Freedom Convoy” protest and its aftermath.
It was amid that chaos that Poilievre launched his leadership bid last Feb. 5, styling it around a promise of restoring “freedom” to Canada, an echo of the protest movement itself.
His campaign exceeded even his own expectations, with his team recruiting upwards of 300,000 new party members on his way to sweeping the vote — and fundraising numbers released this week suggest that groundswell of support is holding.
In the last three months of 2022 — just after the leadership race ended — the Conservatives raised $9.66 million from 60,666 people.
By comparison, the Liberals raised $5.79 million from 38,416 people.
The tally follows a shift in the Conservatives’ fundraising tactics in favour of an emphasis on digital tools to pull in cash over direct mailing and phone calls.
Another strategic manoeuvre was up for debate at the party’s planning meeting this past weekend: how not to fall into the traps being set by the Liberals.
One such trap was sprung this week — the Liberals’ bill to legislate their daycare program hit the floor for debate.
The national early learning and child-care program seeks to bring the cost of daycare down to an average of $10 a day, with federal and provincial governments sharing the cost of subsidizing spaces.
The Liberals have been explicit about wanting to put the program into law to make it harder for a future Conservative government to cancel.
That Conservatives might quash such a system wouldn’t be a surprise; upon coming to power in 2006, the Harper Conservatives swiftly killed a national daycare deal put in place by the Paul Martin Liberals, in favour of direct payments to parents.
But Poilievre signalled Wednesday that might not be the case on his watch. His party supports studying the existing bill at committee, he said, and he emphasized they support access to affordable care, too.
He’s promising a Conservative child-care policy on that score in time for the next election.
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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