Canada’s Trudeau hits out at new Conservative leader Poilievre

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has criticised the new leader of the opposition Conservative Party, saying Pierre Poilievre’s rhetoric and policy positions, including on the economy, do not amount to “responsible leadership”.

Speaking to reporters on Monday afternoon, Trudeau congratulated Poilievre on his victory and said his governing Liberals would continue to work with lawmakers across party lines when Canada’s Parliament resumes next week.

“But this doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be calling out highly questionable, reckless economic ideas. What Canadians need is responsible leadership,” Trudeau said.

“Buzzwords, dog whistles and careless attacks don’t add up to a plan for Canadians. Attacking the institutions that make our society fair, safe and free is not responsible leadership.

“Fighting against vaccines that saved millions of lives, that’s not responsible leadership. Opposing the support and investments that have helped save jobs, businesses and families during the pandemic, that’s not responsible leadership.”

Pierre Poilievre was elected leader of Canada’s Conservative Party on Saturday [Patrick Doyle/Reuters]

Poilievre, a right-wing populist and career politician who has been a parliament member since the mid-2000s, was elected as the new head of the Conservative Party of Canada on Saturday.

The Ottawa-area MP has opposed coronavirus vaccine mandates, backed anti-vaccine convoy protesters who occupied the Canadian capital earlier this year, and questioned the independence of the Bank of Canada.

Poilievre has also cast himself as a defender of working-class Canadians, slamming Trudeau for soaring inflation – which he has dubbed “JustinFlation” – and government spending during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, we have people who can’t afford to pay for their kids’ food … We have countless young adults still living in their parents’ basements, stuck in small apartments,” the new leader said during a Conservative caucus meeting on Monday.

Poilievre also issued a “challenge” to Trudeau, whose Liberals reached a deal with the left-leaning New Democratic Party in March to prop up their minority government until 2025, asking him to commit to freezing any new tax increases, especially for workers and seniors.

“There will be no compromise on this point – Conservatives will not support any new tax increases and we will fight tooth-and-nail to stop the coalition from introducing any,” he said.

But despite his rhetoric, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the country’s largest union with 700,000 members nationwide, has said Poilievre “will be a disaster for working people”.

“Pierre is a career politician who has been collecting a six-figure salary on the public’s dime since he was 24, and he’s spent every minute of his time in office fighting against fair wages, good pensions and a better life for working people,” Mark Hancock, CUPE national president, said in a statement on Saturday.

“He is not a worker, and he definitely doesn’t get what it means to be a member of the working class.”

While previous Conservative leaders have shifted back to the centre after winning the party’s top post in an attempt to take votes from the Liberals in general elections, one expert recently told Al Jazeera that she expected Poilievre to go “full steam ahead”.

But a possible pivot could be towards being more specific on his ideas, said Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

“Because he’s going to be leader of the opposition, he’s going to have to say something in parliament, to ask the prime minister questions, and take up some legislative space that’s not about vague ideas of freedom,” she said.

Trudeau has seen his popularity drop since the Liberals first swept to power in 2015 under his leadership, and in recent months, he has become the focus of right-wing anger over his government’s COVID-19 and economic policies, among other things.

An Abacus Data poll from late July showed that 51 percent of Canadians disapproved of the government’s record – the highest disapproval rating since that vote seven years ago.

After the Liberals failed to get majorities in the last two federal elections, experts have questioned whether Trudeau should stay on as party leader, or whether he should step aside in favour of other Liberal MPs before the next vote.

But the Toronto Star newspaper reported last week that Trudeau informed his cabinet that he intends to lead the party in the next contest.

The Canadian Parliament will resume on September 20.

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