Sitting in a coffee shop for the 23rd interview of his week, Pierre Poilievre, the minister of state for democratic reform, explains how he prepared to table the Fair Elections Act and how he and his staff of four drew up a table with justifications for each measure in the 252-page bill. “Our preparations drilled down to molecular detail,” he says. He turns to an aide seated to his left and half-jokes, “I think you guys were ready to knock my head off by the end of it.”
Poilievre joined the cabinet last July, but his real debut as a minister was last week, when he brought a government bill to the floor of the House of Commons—a multi-faceted reworking of federal election law and the affairs of Elections Canada.
Not that Poilievre needed much introduction. Four months short of his 35th birthday, he has already been an MP for nearly a decade and, as a parliamentary secretary, he became one of question period’s most prominent recurring characters—a boyish, smooth-talking government defender deployed to obfuscate and irritate the opposition in response to accusations of wrongdoing.
“My life is politics, reading books and exercise,” he said in an earlier interview. He has said that reading Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom at the age of 17 was “seminal” to his political thinking, and he identifies the principles of limited government and “maximizing people’s freedom to work hard and achieve things for themselves and their families” as the reasons he is in politics.
In preparing to table his bill, Poilievre consulted with veteran ministers John Baird and Jason Kenney, and it was Kenney’s advice that seems to have guided Poilievre’s public approach. “His formula for responding in the House is always to deliver a multitude of simply presented, irrefutable, documented facts,” Poilievre says of the employment minister. Poilievre’s responses in the House have subsequently been punctuated with references to turnout data, error rates, studies and legislation, most of it delivered confidently and quickly. To fend off one question from the NDP, he recited chapter and verse from the Director of Public Prosecutions Act. (It was a recitation that delighted the Conservative side: Maxime Bernier, Polievre’s seatmate, stood to mime a home-run swing when Poilievre had finished.)
Responding to Poilievre’s initial remarks in the House on the new bill, NDP critic Craig Scott complimented the minister on an “an extremely well-prepared speech,” though, via email, he still quibbles with how that knowledge has been applied, accusing a “smart minister” of “manipulative spin?.?.?. inaccuracy, sophistry and, ultimately, Orwellian doublespeak.”
The bill is being challenged on a number of fronts, and the debate is not nearly over, so it remains to be seen how much Scott and other critics can succeed in unravelling the minister’s arguments. (He has at least conceded that the bill might be amended to mollify some concerns of the chief electoral officer.) The biggest problems governments have with legislation, Poilievre says, is when “they can’t answer basic questions about controversial measures. So much of the time, in politics, we try to come up with these clever turns of phrase, slogans or messages, but what the public really wants is just the simple facts,” he says. “And whichever side has a better mastery of those facts, I think, wins the debate in the long run.”
A fascinating battle between a rookie minister and the opposition over a potentially profound piece of legislation is thus set up.