What could an Ontario byelection say about Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre?

OTTAWA — Three months ago, Pierre Poilievre proved he was the populist fighter Conservatives wanted in the next federal election, winning the party’s leadership contest in a landslide.

But how much is he fighting to win over the first of the country’s voters to have their say during his tenure?

On Monday, people living in the Greater Toronto Area riding of Mississauga-Lakeshore will be able to vote in a federal byelection triggered by the resignation of former Liberal MP Sven Spengemann.

Despite saying that it’s time for change, federal Conservatives have been quick to dampen expectations for the contest — and any suggestion that its outcome is a reflection of Poilievre’s early leadership, or his message to Canadians.

Read more: Federal by-election to take place in Mississauga-Lakeshore on Dec. 12

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For one thing, they cite an anticipated low voter turnout, with two weeks left until Christmas. Poilievre has also been busy staffing the party and his office on Parliament Hill. And the Liberals have held the riding for the past three elections, though Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won it in 2011.

But the biggest hurdle many trot out is the opponent Conservatives are up against. That’s former Ontario finance minister Charles Sousa, who represented a Mississauga riding for the provincial Liberals until his defeat in 2018. The Tories nominated Ron Chhinzer, a local police officer with a considerably lower profile.

Even Poilievre himself has laid low. A scan of his social media channels on Friday found no mention of the byelection or evidence of his presence in the riding, although some members of Parliament have visited.

Poilievre’s office didn’t respond to a question about whether he plans to campaign with Chhinzer. As of Friday, Poilievre was in Atlantic Canada.

Read more: Mississauga MP set to resign seat in parliament to join United Nations

Conservative political strategist Shakir Chambers said a win for Chhinzer would be an obvious show of momentum for Poilievre in a region where the Tories want to find success. But if it goes the other way, he said, one takeaway could be a lesson about Poilievre’s message delivery.

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“When you look at the 905, the Mississauga area and the Brampton area, a lot of those folks can go either way at any time,” he said.

“It’s very important for folks to realize what Pierre is talking about, where he stands on certain issues, and not take it for granted that he’s this household name because he had a lot of momentum in the leadership race.”

During the 2021 federal election, Conservatives lost the riding by fewer than 4,000 votes. Erin O’Toole had targeted it and other Toronto-area ridings by preaching a moderate conservative message — but it came up short with both prospective new voters and party faithful.

Having won the leadership with more support than the party’s past two leaders, Poilievre enjoys a much more unified caucus. But he has eschewed the conventional way of spreading his message, rarely speaking with national media.

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Poilievre ridicules recent reports of RCMP contract being awarded to company with alleged Chinese ties

Instead, he relies heavily on social media.

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He has also opted to give interviews to smaller outlets, such as local radio stations and media that serve members of the country’s immigrant and racialized communities in and around Toronto and Vancouver — demographics Conservatives know they must win over if they want to form the next government.

Overall, it’s an unprecedented way of doing things, Chambers said, and he questioned whether it will translate for a national audience. “Is this an effective strategy in a general kind of capacity? Or was it only good when you were talking to the (party’s) base?”

Philippe Fournier of 338Canada, a statistical model of electoral projection based on polls, demographics and election history, said Poilievre appears to be “preaching to the converted” with that approach.

“The Conservatives, if they want to win — it’s not getting two or three points in front of the Liberals, it’s getting two or three points in front of the Liberals in the suburbs, or in urban Canada,” he said. “And so far, we see no indication that that’s the case.”

Ginny Roth, who was Poilievre’s communications director during the leadership campaign, defended the strategy, saying the leader is not “dogmatic” about who he speaks to. She pointed to the fact that he recently fielded questions about inflation outside the House of Commons — though his appearance in front of parliamentary reporters has so far been rare.

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Poilievre has got mixed reviews for the issues he has chosen to highlight in the early days of his leadership and in the lead-up to the first federal contest during his tenure.

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‘Stop Whining’: Premier Doug Ford targets Mississauga mayor over Bill 23 spat

A go-to topic has been inflation, a subject popular with all opposition parties as the country sees record-high inflation and economic anxieties increase. Poilievre is a fiscal hawk, having served as a longtime finance critic for the party.

He has also been speaking out about crime and has vocally opposed Liberal gun legislation intended to permanently outlaw some types of firearms.

In November, Poilievre broadened his message to state that “everything feels broken,” putting out a five-minute video filmed in front of a homeless encampment in Vancouver. In the ad, Poilievre said the policy of delivering toxic drug users a safe supply of opioids is a “failed experiment.”

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The controversial position drew swift condemnation from drug policy experts and Liberal MPs, who said it was unscientific and even dangerous amid Canada’s ongoing overdose crisis.

Roth cautioned that Poilievre’s message should not be dismissed out of hand, saying that his political talent is being able to relate to Canadians and speak to how they really feel about issues.

And longtime Conservative Fraser Macdonald said some of Poilievre’s rhetoric has been a welcome shift away from pandemic-related grievances.

“I’m certainly happy to hear less about issues like vaccines and sort of the niche issues of the COVID era,” said Macdonald, who worked on the campaign of distant runner-up Jean Charest.

“Having just been smoked by them in a leadership race, I’m totally open to giving them a very long runway.”

Though Poilievre has steered clear of mentioning Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s controversial sovereignty bill, he has maintained his support for the “Freedom Convoy” protesters who staged a weeks-long demonstration in downtown Ottawa last winter in opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, with their parked trucks blocking the streets around Parliament Hill.

He qualified that support recently by telling The Andrew Lawton Show that “my preference would have been for them to be on foot and to park their trucks off site.”

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