OTTAWA — As the United States election cycle goes into full swing ahead of a pivotal election later this year, federal Liberals north of the border have been increasingly comparing Canadian Conservatives to Trump Republicans.
For several months, the refrain from Liberal MPs is that the federal Tories are doing “American-style” politics, and their leader, Pierre Poilievre, is representing “Trump North.”
Conservative MPs are using “MAGA” tactics, the Liberals say, referring to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. They’re invoking it just as the ex-president looks for another kick at the presidential can.
The comparison south of the border is a classic page in the Liberal playbook and a tactic conservative politicians have seen brought out both provincially and federally.
To the Tories, it’s just a lazy trope and a distraction from pocketbook issues.
But the Liberals are arguing that more is at stake, painting their rhetoric as an attempt to shield Canada from a far-right populist wave that is surging in other democratic countries and spelling harm to priorities such as LGBTQ+ rights and climate action.
People around the world are becoming increasingly anxious and frustrated over the price of goods and housing shortages, and Conservatives are capitalizing on those emotions by using Trump’s playbook, says the Liberal party’s national campaign co-chair.
“There are tactics being used where you want to polarize emotions in a way that you present facts that feed into your own ideology and put fear into people,” said Quebec Liberal MP Soraya Martinez Ferrada, who is serving as Trudeau’s tourism minister.
“That’s the way you want to drive politics, and it’s something new we’re seeing here in Canada. And it’s not just (coming from) America. We see it in other countries and that’s what’s different right now.”
Countries across the European Union are seeing a rise of far-right populist parties, and in November, Argentina elected a far-right outsider as president.
Last week, Trump won the Iowa caucuses, paving the way for him to become the likely 2024 Republican presidential nominee.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been falling behind in the polls for months. Like members of his caucus, he has been hitting hard on the idea that Poilievre is borrowing from Trump’s brand of campaigning.
As abortion and transgender rights remain hot-button issues in U.S. politics, Trudeau has tried to link both topics to Poilievre.
“What we’re seeing from these MAGA conservatives is an approach on going back on fundamental rights in ways we shouldn’t be seeing,” he said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press, suggesting that Conservatives in Canada could go down the same road.
Noting a rollback on abortion access in the U.S., Trudeau said: “We may think to ourselves, ‘This will never happen in Canada and this is just the Liberals bringing up the usual fear that they do.’ I’m sorry, it wasn’t ever supposed to happen in the United States either, and yet it did because of MAGA conservatism. The threat is real.”
Trudeau has also accused Poilievre of trying to use LGBTQ+ kids as a wedge issue.
Poilievre has said that “parental rights” need to be respected, as conservative premiers in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan impose policies requiring teachers to inform parents if students wish to use different pronouns or names at school.
The Conservative leader has also alluded to the idea that Trudeau subscribes to “radical gender ideology” — a phrase that Trump has repeatedly used, as the Liberals have pointed out in online advertisements putting the two side by side.
The party has also run ads in Conservative Prairie strongholds suggesting that Tories are importing “American-style politics” and questioning their support for Ukraine.
That’s after Poilievre and his caucus voted against a bill that would implement a modernized free-trade agreement with the war-torn country.
The Conservatives have insisted they stand with Ukraine and their opposition has to do with language in the deal that says both countries will promote carbon pricing. Ukraine already has a carbon price and its ambassador, along with Ukrainian Canadian organizations, have been calling on Poilievre to reconsider the position.
As Poilievre continues to push the government on its approach to Canadians’ economic woes — and blames carbon pricing for the cost-of-living crisis — the Liberals have suggested that the Conservatives would cut important social programming.
“The Conservative party under Pierre Poilievre has made it very, very clear they want to take Canada backwards in all those ways and more,” Trudeau said Thursday at a press conference in Nunavut.
Sebastian Skamski, a spokesman for Poilievre, said Trudeau and his “out-of-touch Liberals” are desperate to distract from the “misery and pain” they’ve inflicted over more than eight years in power.
“With millions of Canadians forced to rely on food banks and more and more middle-class people driven into homelessness, it’s no surprise Liberals will make ludicrous claims in a desperate attempt to divide Canadians and hope they forget about their suffering,” Skamski said in a statement.
But the only divide Liberals say they are looking to create is a clear distinction between Trudeau and Poilievre, whom they accuse of stirring up fear without offering solutions.
Garry Keller, a former senior Tory staffer, said he sees the Liberals relying on external events — in this case the perceived threat of a second Trump presidency — to change the narrative as they struggle to resonate with an increasingly detached voter base.
“When you’re at that point in the polls, there’s a portion of the voting universe that has completely tuned you out because you haven’t addressed their concerns, whether it’s on housing, affordability, cost of living,” said Keller, a vice-president at consulting firm StrategyCorp.
“They deliberately tried a number of things to try to change the channel, and they haven’t really worked.”
Enter Trump as the ideal bogeyman.
Alex Marland, a professor of politics at Acadia University, said the Liberals are attempting to frame the political debate as a choice between good and evil.
“They’re targeting people who voted Liberal in the past and have now soured on the Liberals,” said Marland, who has written about political marketing in Canada.
“So they’re trying to find a way to get those people back. And the way to get those people back is to cause them to be afraid of voting Conservative.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2024.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press