Let's get 'real': Trudeau, Poilievre and the big debate over what matters

It's possible to make too much out of the first face-to-face showdown between Pierre Poilievre as leader of the opposition and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But there was one sentence exchanged between the two on Thursday afternoon — one word, really — that might define this next period of Canadian politics.

The first of many face-to-face exchanges offered plenty to chew on

The moment before things got 'real': Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre greet each other in the House of Commons on Sept. 15. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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It's possible to make too much out of the first face-to-face showdown between Pierre Poilievre as leader of the opposition and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But there was one sentence exchanged between the two on Thursday afternoon — one word, really — that might define this next period of Canadian politics.

"On this side of the aisle," Trudeau said, finishing his fifth and final response to Poilievre, "we are going to stay focused on helping Canadians for real."

It's too soon to say whether this was a line Trudeau came up with on the spot or a message the Liberals expect to repeat ad nauseam in the months ahead. But the next three years might present one great debate about who has the "real" solutions — and to which "real" problems.

The attention heaped on Thursday's exchange was not unwarranted. You'd also have a hard time finding anyone who remembers much of anything about the first confrontations between, say, Stéphane Dion and Stephen Harper, or Andrew Scheer and Trudeau. Poilievre and Trudeau will see each other many more times and many more issues will emerge before the next election.

Still, there was plenty to chew on in the 10 minutes the prime minister and the new leader of His Majesty's Loyal Opposition shared on Thursday.

Cryptocurrencies and carbon taxes

Poilievre's opening gambit was to mock the fact that Trudeau had been out of the country on Tuesday and Wednesday. Chastising the prime minister for attending the Queen's funeral and the United Nations General Assembly might seem an odd choice — unless, as with meetings at the World Economic Forum, such trips would be banned under a Poilievre government. But it's a sign of the level of scrutiny Poilievre intends to apply to Trudeau.

For his part, Trudeau made it through only two and a half answers before reminding the House of Commons of how the new Conservative leader pitched cryptocurrencies as a way to "opt out of inflation" — and of how much Poilievre's listeners might have lost after the crypto market crashed this spring. You almost certainly will hear more from the Liberals about that.

Poilievre has conspicuously stopped talking about bitcoin and the like since the market turned sour. His main focus last week was on less ephemeral things, like employment insurance and Canada Pension Plan premiums and the federal carbon tax. Poilievre has already said he'd eliminate the carbon price and is now calling on the government to cancel a planned increase in EI and CPP payments.

Given the current rate of inflation, those might be tempting targets — something that could save Canadians a few bucks in the short term. But eliminating the carbon tax necessarily would mean higher greenhouse gas emissions. And freezing premiums for EI and CPP would not be consequence-free actions.

These Liberals rarely seem to put much effort into question period, but Poilievre's presence and his focus on EI did prompt them to find out where premiums were when Poilievre was in Stephen Harper's cabinet. Trudeau was happy to point out that premiums were higher back then, by at least by one measure.

But the prime minister was particularly keen to goad Poilievre into saying whether Conservatives would support government legislation to increase the GST rebate, provide additional support to renters and offer new funding for dental care.

With control of the legislative agenda, the Liberals will be able to force such choices on the Conservatives. But then, of course, it still will be up to voters to judge the impact and usefulness of those Liberal actions.

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There are any number of real problems to deal with right now, problems that are very keenly felt — from the stress caused by the cost of groceries to the insecurity caused by the race to combat climate change. And there are very real differences between how Trudeau and Poilievre say they want to approach those problems.

Trudeau's use of "real" on Thursday suggests he believes his solutions are more credible than what Poilievre has proposed — just as, seven years ago, his promise of "real change" was meant to suggest his government would mark a more drastic change from the Harper government than one led by Tom Mulcair.

Trudeau has struggled at various points over the past seven years to make the case that he has been as good as his word, and that his government's programs and spending are making tangible differences in the lives of Canadians. He has up to three years now to demonstrate that his solutions are the most "real" ones on offer.

Whatever else might hamper the Liberal government's re-election hopes, its fate might hinge on showing it has real answers to the real problems faced by Canadians and the real questions that Canadians have about the future. 

And if Liberals' actions don't seem to be having a real impact, Trudeau shouldn't be surprised if voters start looking elsewhere — and at very different answers.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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