Pierre Poilievre takes charge of one key to Conservative election win

The minister of state for democratic reform, who has a history of playing rough in the House of Commons, is taking on a file that will require him to negotiate with the provinces. The employment file is also a key part of the Conservative Party's 2015 election strategy.

Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre has held challenging roles under Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Pierre Poilievre, who has a history of playing rough in the House of Commons, is taking on a file that will require him to negotiate with the provinces. The employment file is also a key part of the Conservative Party's 2015 election strategy. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

If the Conservatives plan to make jobs, the economy and the war on terror the main issues in the 2015 election campaign, a 35-year-old MP who's spent the bulk of his working life in politics has just taken over one third of that platform.

Pierre Poilievre, the man likely best known for championing last year's changes to Canadian election law, is replacing Jason Kenney as minister of employment and social development. 

Poilievre is taking over for a minister widely acknowledged to have the best grasp on his files in a massive department known as a super-ministry, which was modified specifically for Kenney to let him tackle some of the issues he saw as problems (Kenney on Monday became defence minister).

The new role will require Poilievre to negotiate with the provinces on sensitive issues such as labour market funding and employment insurance. He'll also be looking ahead to two new labour surveys coming up next year, a challenge for the government since Kenney acknowledged there's a gap in Canada's labour data.

For an MP such as Poilievre, who has a history of playing rough in the House of Commons, it may seem like an odd fit. 

The Calgary-born Conservative was first elected in Ottawa's Nepean-Carleton riding in 2004, taking down a Liberal cabinet minister at the height of the sponsorship scandal. Since the Conservatives have been in government, Poilievre has been parliamentary secretary to the Treasury Board president, the prime minister and the minister of transport.

He's also frequently been controversial, usually because of his fierce partisanship.

Affable and smart

In 2006, Poilievre was caught on tape at a committee meeting muttering "f--- you guys" to other MPs.

In 2008, Poilievre had to apologize for telling an Ottawa radio station that former students of residential schools would benefit more from engendering "the values of hard work and independence" than they would from more money. He made the comments on the same day Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a historic apology to former students of residential schools.

Jason Kenney, left, is Canada's new defence minister, while Rob Nicholson, centre, takes over Foreign Affairs following the resignation of John Baird. Pierre Poilievre, right, succeeds Kenney at Employment and Social Development. (Sean Kilpatrick/Fred Chartrand/Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
As Harper's parliamentary secretary, Poilievre had to stand in the House and defend the Conservatives against whatever the opposition threw at them on any given day, a role he sometimes returned to even after moving to the transport file. He sat in front of TV cameras to do MP panels and never seemed to tire of being the public face of the government's scandals.

Poilievre declined an interview request, citing all-day briefings on his new file. It's an uncharacteristic response for the minister who, during the debate over changes to the Canada Elections Act, seemed to be on TV or radio daily.

Two of his Ottawa-area Conservative colleagues didn't respond to interview requests, but NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott called within minutes of getting the interview request.

Poilievre is "affable" one-on-one and there's no doubt he's smart, Scott said, while adding the newly minted minister can internalize talking points to the point he sometimes doesn't seem to be paying attention when he answers.

Scott calls Poilievre the "go-to guy" to "deflect and frustrate" in question period.

"To be fair to him, the jury is out on what he's able to accomplish [as a minister] … He's an incredibly partisan politician. He's operated in that mode in a way that makes you wonder, OK, when he's given a ministerial assignment of consequence, will he run the ministry on his own or will he automatically default to the PMO team that rides shotgun?"

'Do the real work'

After weeks of criticism, Poilievre eventually announced some amendments to bill C-23, the changes to the Canada Elections Act over which he and Scott battled. He left many other controversial measures intact. It's not entirely clear why he proposed the changes when the government's majority could have pushed the bill through unchanged.

Being the minister in charge of employment will be a whole new challenge.

In 2009, Poilievre was part of a panel at the Manning Conference on the next generation of political activists and politicians where he gave advice to those who wanted to stand out on a campaign.

"Show that you are useful. There’s one position on the campaign that is always over-filled and that is campaign strategist. Every campaign has thousands of strategists, there are no shortage of them, they’ll work for free. Strategist for them means sitting around in the campaign office, leaning back in their chairs, telling the world what everyone else is doing wrong," Poilievre said, according to Maclean's magazine.

"We don’t need any of those people. So when you’re a young person and you want to prove your usefulness, go out and knock on doors, make phone calls, do the real work and show that you can get things done. And before you know it, everyone around the room will start to appreciate you because they see that you can get results and you deliver."

with files from Susana Mas


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