Published December 19, 2023

Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre voted CP's 2023 Newsmaker of the Year

By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

An anxious electorate, a new look and a bite out of Liberal polling numbers have all boosted the profile of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who was picked by editors across the country as The Canadian Press 2023 Newsmaker of the Year.

"He changed the political conversation, and boy did he reap the benefits," Rob Roberts, editor-in-chief at the National Post, wrote in his response to the survey.

"He's the clear favourite to be the next prime minister."

There were 97 votes cast in the annual survey by The Canadian Press, with about 26 per cent of participants from various media outlets across the country choosing Poilievre as this year's newsmaker.

Newly elected Manitoba NDP Premier Wab Kinew, who is the first provincial premier in Canada to be from a First Nation, tied for second place with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at 14 per cent of the vote.

Poilievre, 44, was elected leader with a whopping first-ballot victory in September 2022, unifying the party and its caucus in a way not seen since Stephen Harper became the first leader of the modern Conservative Party of Canada, then prime minister for nearly 10 years.

The official Opposition leader now heads into 2024 after months of rising support in the polls, while Trudeau and his Liberals have been trailing. The governing party has been scrambling to catch up with the Conservatives' effective messaging — and the social media savvy of their leader — on housing and the cost-of-living crisis felt by Canadians.

Poilievre also successfully revived the debate over carbon pricing with his relentless "axe the tax" campaign, tying it to affordability concerns plaguing Canadians. He claimed victory over Trudeau's decision to pause the carbon levy on home heating oil following widespread complaints in Atlantic Canada, where the Liberals were slumping in the polls.

Even Trudeau admitted the messaging has been effective, telling The Canadian Press in a year-end interview last week that the Conservatives have "successfully scapegoated" his signature climate policy as the main culprit behind rising prices.

"The Conservative Party of Canada’s rise in the polls — at the expense of the governing Liberal party — has a lot to do with Tory Leader Pierre Poilievre’s successful bid to blame the Trudeau government and its carbon tax policy on rising inflation and affordability issues experienced by ordinary Canadians," Matt Goerzen, managing editor of the Brandon Sun, wrote in the Newsmaker of the Year survey.

"The failure of the Liberals to get ahead of these issues by finding solutions to the rising cost of fuel, food and mortgages has allowed Poilievre to gain the advantage, and he has expertly and consistently tapped into Canadians’ growing anger and frustration regarding our nation's economic hardships."

While Poilievre has maintained a campaign-style pace since becoming leader, crossing the country several times over for rallies and fundraisers, next year will mark 20 years since he was first elected a member of Parliament for an Ottawa-area riding.

Long known for his abrasive style and hyper-partisan rhetoric in the House of Commons, Poilievre has somewhat softened his tone — and ditched his glasses — as part of efforts to redefine himself to Canadians in a way that pollsters believe is working.

Getting more voters, particularly those who live in the battleground ridings in the Greater Toronto Area, as well as women over 50, to warm to the idea of Poilievre being the agent of change after more than eight years of Liberal rule was part of the party's motivation in launching a $3-million advertising campaign.

The advertising also features what many Conservatives see as another key to their success: his wife, Anaida Poilievre.

As she says in the ads, Anaida Poilievre is a Venezuelan immigrant who came to call Canada, and Quebec in particular, her home. She has taken on a greater role in staging fundraising events and appearing at cultural events with newcomer communities.

She also had a hand in designing the party's latest merchandise. That included a T-shirt printed with an image of Poilievre chomping an apple — a reference to his decision to swat away a British Columbia reporter's questions about him being a political populist by firing back with his own questions, all while eating an apple on the sidelines of an orchard.

Shared by the party with the tag line, "How do you like them apples," the video caught the attention of Fox News, as well as Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of 'X,' the online platform formerly known as Twitter.

Staffers, caucus members and party supporters basked in the viral frame, hauling the fruit to different meetings and events to include in photos.

And if it wasn't already clear whose party it is, the Conservative party recently rolled out new membership cards featuring none other than Poilievre's face, including one with his wife and another with him holding an apple.

"TikTok memes a plenty," Lenie Lucci, editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette, wrote in the Newsmaker of the Year survey.

Neither the Conservative party nor the official Opposition leader's office responded to a request for comment regarding the rise of Poilievre, or a year-end interview with the leader. Poilievre has also not given a news conference since Nov. 23.

Longtime Conservative MP Ed Fast says Poilievre has impressed him with his ability to wield social media as a tool to spread the party's message.

"That is far exceeded what I had expected," Fast said in an interview. "His use of social media is exemplary."

Many Conservatives credit that success to Poilievre directly, who makes a point of involving himself directly in communication efforts.

That included a recently released 15-minute video ad, with Poilievre as the narrator.

The video went into how the housing shortage in Canada began and how Poilievre plans to fix it. It has generated millions of clicks, but some economists say it plays a bit fast and loose with some facts.

Fast, who was among those Conservative MPs who backed former Quebec premier Jean Charest in the leadership race, said Poilievre had grown into the job.

"He certainly learned the ropes of leading a caucus," said Fast. "If there's any doubt about that, I want to put that to rest."

Fast said he believes Poilievre's next task will be to keep the support he has developed among young people and voters, including those in the labour movement, that have traditionally voted for the New Democrats but are now interested in the Conservatives.

"Because they're new, you want to make sure that they feel comfortable within a broad, big tent Conservative party," said Fast. "He has to take steps now to consolidate that support over the next year."

After a bruising summer and fall, the Liberals have been given some hope in recent weeks. They saw an opening to attack Poilievre after the Conservatives voted against a bill to implement an updated free trade agreement with Ukraine, as well as government spending estimates that included a Canadian military training mission for Ukrainian troops.

The Liberals accused Conservatives of wading into the "Make America Great Again"-style politics popularized by former U.S. president Donald Trump and siding with some American Republicans who oppose sending Ukraine more military support.

Canadian Conservatives have squarely rejected both claims, but MPs have nonetheless been scrambling online to explain that they would continue to support Ukraine if they form government. The Conservatives said their issue with the free trade bill is the text's mention of "carbon pricing," a policy they vehemently detest.

Ukraine has already had a carbon price in place for more than a decade and the language around carbon pricing in the bill is not legally binding.

There have been other bumpy moments in an otherwise big year.

Poilievre apologized in June after a woman said she was offended by his decision to call her post-Second World War home in Niagara Falls, Ont., a "tiny little shack" while talking about housing prices.

In July, his office issued a statement to say Poilievre had not read, and did not agree with, the "straight pride" message on a T-shirt worn by a man he took a photo with during a crowded pancake breakfast at the Calgary Stampede.

Poilievre has consistently found ways "into national headlines and thus into the public consciousness," Goerzen of the Brandon Sun wrote in his survey response.

"For both good reasons and a few poor ones."

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2023.

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