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Tom Mulcair: Pierre Poilievre proves to be a quick study when it comes to damage control

A combination photo showing, on the left, Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre in Ottawa on May 6, 2024 (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby) and Conservative MP Arnold Viersen, on the right, on May 27, 2021 in Ottawa (THE CANADIAN PRESS /Adrian Wyld)
A combination photo showing, on the left, Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre in Ottawa on May 6, 2024 (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby) and Conservative MP Arnold Viersen, on the right, on May 27, 2021 in Ottawa (THE CANADIAN PRESS /Adrian Wyld)
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It was Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre鈥檚 birthday on Monday, but he could鈥檝e probably done without the package that one of his more obscure backbenchers dropped on his doorstep.

Conservative MP Arnold Viersen might want to consider another line of work after getting lambasted publicly by Poilievre and being forced to issue a groveling retraction.

Ouch.

For reasons known only to Viersen, the Conservative MP for Peace River-Westlock decided he had nothing better to do with his time than sit down to be by --wait for it -- a Liberal MP.

That Liberal, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, occupies the left side of the Liberal political spectrum. Viersen is on the social-conservative right wing of his party. What ensued was a train wreck of epic proportions for the Conservative MP.

Viersen, it turns out, is against gay marriage and has retrograde views on just about everything else, from a woman鈥檚 right to make her own reproductive choices to the legalization of marijuana.

Poilievre's reaction

What was fascinating was the celerity and certainty with which Viersen was forced to walk back his comments. The stern message that followed from Poilievre will not go unnoticed by other social conservatives in his caucus.

Having spent decades in politics, I can safely say that Viersen was taken out to a very uncomfortable woodshed where he was forced to write the following:

"While on a podcast with a Liberal MP, I made a series of comments. My comments don't represent the positions of the Leader, nor the policies passed by Conservative Party members themselves. On these issues, the status quo will remain under a Conservative government. That is the reality. The Leader has been extremely clear on that, both now and previously," said Viersen in his statement.

For greater certainty, Poilievre then issued this statement, as his own birthday present to himself:

"I disagree with Arnold Viersen's statements and the positions he took on this podcast. They do not represent the positions of the Conservative Party, or myself as leader. As our party's policy book, adopted by party members, has said for years, 'a Conservative Government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.' When I am prime minister, no laws or rules will be passed that restrict women's reproductive choices. Period."

Poilievre added:  "Canadians are free to love and marry who they choose. Same sex marriage is legal and it will remain legal when I am prime minister, full stop. To be clear, there will also be no change to the legal status of marijuana under a future Conservative government. I will lead a small government that minds its own business, letting people make their own decisions about their love lives, their families, their bodies, their speech, their beliefs and their money. We will put people back in charge of their lives in the freest country in the world."

Poilievre鈥檚 statement in reaction to Viersen had all the hallmarks of being 鈥 Poilievre鈥檚 statement. It was his own. And it was crystal clear. It wasn鈥檛 drafted by anonymous political staff. The wording was all his and it largely rang true.

Of course there are limits to all that high-sounding freedom talk of Poilievre鈥檚. When he sees a political advantage, like opposing , all of a sudden he鈥檚 not so keen on letting people decide what they put into their bodies.

Poilievre had taken the abortion issue by the horns during his leadership race and had the courage to say, simply, that he was pro-choice. That was a gutsy move for a Conservative leadership candidate and it helped define him for all voters.

There was very little pushback and Poilievre won that leadership in a romp. However, 18 months later, the Liberals had decided that it wasn鈥檛 clear enough. They were deploying their favourite tactic that they鈥檇 used so successfully against Andrew Scheer and Erin O鈥橳oole, to rile up voters on a key social issue with doubts and half-truths.

The comeuppance here was poetic. The ultimate 'gotcha' moment for the Liberals turned to dust. For those who still had some doubt as to where Poilievre stood, Monday鈥檚 statement ended it. Period.

My politics couldn鈥檛 be further from those of Poilievre's on many fronts.

I don鈥檛 believe that wishful thinking, like the magical technical solution he says will be created to deal with climate change, is a credible way to achieve a result on a crucial issue of public protection.

His stump speech slogan of 鈥榯echnology not taxes鈥 is effective but totally deceptive. It鈥檚 one of the 'dragons of inaction' in the fight against climate change, yet it is crafty and reflects a very deep-seated need for certain voters who like being told that there鈥檚 a solution that doesn鈥檛 require any change in our way of doing things. The promise of a that requires no real effort could well prove very popular. It just won鈥檛 help address this existential issue.

Poilievre's 'fake solution to a real problem'

Climate change is real, Canada is one of the world's largest laboratories. If the repeated record heat, droughts, wildfires and floods don鈥檛 allow Poilievre to understand, then he鈥檒l keep denying that anything credible needs to be done now. Proposing a fake solution to a real problem is just another way of denying that it even exists.

Poilievre scares progressives with his oft-stated intention of getting rid of 'gatekeepers' who hinder development. Protecting agricultural land and habitat isn鈥檛 a hindrance, it's a precious legacy for future generations. Poilievre seems to want to drive bulldozers through the green belts of the country.

The irony is that it鈥檚 a theme of inter-generational equity that鈥檚 propelled him to a huge lead in the polls. Younger Canadian voters know they鈥檒l be less likely to own their own home than their parents or grandparents, as a result of Trudeau鈥檚 incompetence in planning immigration and dealing with housing and the economy. Poilievre could lose that advantage with his approach that would damage the natural birthright of future generations to a sustainable environment.

The 'freedom' he touts has to come with commitment to certain principles if he鈥檚 going to be taken seriously.

It鈥檚 one thing to say you鈥檙e going to fire the Governor of the Bank of Canada, quite another to have a real plan for managing the economy of a G-7 country.

Poilievre will remove social programs that Trudeau and Singh have put in place. Those programs are a great way to help those at the bottom of the sociolo-economic ladder and reduce inequality in our society.

Poilievre would leave citizens with the 'freedom' to take care of their teeth, their prescription medication and their kids鈥 daycare. He hasn鈥檛 said exactly which ones yet but he鈥檚 stopped saying that he won鈥檛 cut social programs. Poilievre will have to, one day, provide clarity on that as well.

But this week, on several key social issues, Poilievre has staked out some solid ground that will find approval with a large spectrum of voters.

Turnabout is fair play in politics. This turn of events was exceptionally well-handled by Poilievre.

He went from being on the defensive to being in control. Those instincts and quick reflexes will come in handy for him in an election campaign.

It's always been easy to conclude that a fastball to the head was the only pitch in Poilievre鈥檚 repertoire. He鈥檚 starting to show what star he鈥檚 steering by and that he has certain core beliefs that he鈥檚 going to impose on any and all in his party.

He was never going to be boring. He might turn out to be interesting.

In the meantime, you can be sure that no other Conservative MP or candidate will be plopping themselves in front of a microphone, unscripted, at any time in the near future. Poilievre has given himself a precious birthday present with that.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017

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