Beware Pierre Poilievre's "Common Sense" Revolution
The right loves to preach about common sense, but while they promise freedom and tax cuts, you'll end up paying dearly for the faux-populist plan.
For months, Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre has been stumping for a “common sense” change in government. Last week, the line was given pride of place at his party’s convention in Quebec City — the “Common Sense Convention.”
During his marathon keynote, Poilievre mentioned common sense several times. The speech stretched so long it would have made Fidel Castro proud, so there was plenty of time to pontificate on the virtues of common sense, without filling in too many details, of course.
Contrasting the Conservative and Liberal parties, the blue-side leader noted he offered “A common-sense Conservative government that frees hardworking people to earn powerful paycheques that buy affordable food, gas and homes — in safe neighbourhoods.”
Later, Poilievre touted his “common sense” plan that “cuts waste and caps spending to bring down inflationary deficits and interest rates.” What was that again? What kind of plan? In case you’d forgotten, he returned to the chorus, adding “My common-sense plan is to have a new funding formula that links the number of federal dollars cities get for infrastructure to the number of houses they allow to be completed.”
The night before Poilievre’s speech, retired Canadian Forces members Michel and Barbara Maisonneuve did the Conservative leader’s dirty work for him in their speech to delegates, hammering on the “anti-woke” agenda that the brass seem to think the made-over Poilievre should leave to others. The Maisonneuves, when not frothing at the mouth while denouncing “wokeness,” were citing Poilievre’s common sense plans.
“Pierre Poilievre predicted all of these problems. And he has a common-sense plan to bring home the Canada we know and love,” they said.
“He will bring back common sense by cutting taxes so people take home more of every dollar earned.”
“He will bring back common sense with affordable housing by removing taxes and bureaucratic barriers in order to build, build and build.”
“He will bring back common sense with the defence of our freedoms by repealing censorship.”
And, in closing, “Canadians deserve a country governed by a prime minister who has common sense.”
So much common sense, so little time!
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“Common sense,” to adapt a line, is the last refuge of scoundrels. A favourite right-wing slogan, it’s as appealing to the disaffected as it is vapid and meaningless. That’s because common sense as a right-wing construction is a malleable thing built and rebuilt according to the mood and exigencies of the time, preying on the anxieties of the population and making promises about better days just ahead, if only you’d check that box for out side and perhaps cut us a cheque, thanks so much.
Writing for the CBC, Aaron Wherry called common sense “that vaguely egalitarian and inherently populist notion that flatters its purveyors and supporters while implicitly disqualifying its opponents and critics.” He’s right about the vagueness of the notion, though we might instead call it emptiness. “Common sense” is a bucket you fill. Or maybe it’s like tofu. It takes on the flavour of whatever you cook with it.
The right cooks it alongside some nasty stuff.
But it’s appealing. As Wherry writes, “Who would dare disagree with something as sensible and universal as common sense? Surely only some out-of-touch snob would attempt to quibble or dismiss something so obvious and true.”
Of course, the danger of “common sense” is that it is as fragile as it is obviously appealing. Since it hides the nuances and trade-offs of policy choices, it is cursed with the inevitability that it will eventually lead to disappointment, like a fat-free muffin. But by the time people figure out the grift, it’s too late. The damage is done.
“Common sense,” spoken on the right, all too often implies a return to an imaginary simpler, better time when no one struggled and the summers ran until January and few people were bothering the majority with requests for things like rights and recognition and inclusion. That means culture war. And this one is going to be very, very nasty and dangerous.
On a material level, common sense conservative plans often mean cutting taxes and gutting government spending, as if it’s sensible to leave people on their own to sort out education, healthcare, transportation, childcare, and just about everything else except the Post Office — and even maybe that, too. Common sense conservative plans don’t try to hide their small government, tax cutting ways, but they do try to hide the true cost of those plans.
In the 1990s, the Butcher of Ontario, Mike Harris, took the Progressive Conservative Party from third place to government on the wings of his “Common Sense Revolution.” The program was rooted in the disgraced logic of neoliberal austerity, tax cuts, and trickle-down economics pushed by the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom and the Reagan White House. We’re still paying for those years, and anyone who lived through them who didn’t happen to be wealthy remembers the pain and suffering of the Harris retrenchment program.
The Harris common sense years led to the premier selling highway 407 and threatening to do the same with the LCBO and even its public broadcaster, TVO. The 407 privatization led to higher fees (tolls rose more than 300 percent in 15 years).
The government fought to end affirmative action and squeeze welfare recipients. It cut social assistance by 21.6 percent and slashed healthcare funding. It cancelled non-market housing plans and gutted tenant protections. It declared war on unions, particularly public-sector unions.
The Harris government lived to serve the suburbs and bash the poor. It broke cities and put the province on a path to privatize hydro service, sending rates higher. It contributed to deaths: the Walkerton contaminated water tragedy, Dudley George, and Kimberley Rogers.
Ontario’s Common Sense Revolution set the province up for the housing, healthcare, long-term care, transportation, social assistance, and local government crises it faces today. Now, Pierre Poilievre is drawing inspiration from the Harris years, promising his own common sense revolution of tax cuts and reduced government spending. There is no time in which such a plan is right for Canada, but there are certainly better and worse times. This is a worse time.
Pierre Poilievre’s empty promise of a common sense revolution is appealing to angry, anxious, and frustrated people who feel, quite rightly, that they’re getting a raw deal. Those turning away from the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau may find Poilievre’s promise of relief appealing. God knows, we need relief. But Poilievre’s program isn’t the answer. It’s been disgraced before—the Thatcher, Reagan, and Harris years are proof—and, if adopted, it will be disgraced again.
While we ought to fight for a better deal, we shouldn’t give in to the sophistry of conservative common sense. We need bigger, more inclusive government programs. We need bigger, stronger unions. We need more public broadcasting. We need a plan to fight climate change that will ensure there’s still a “we” around in a few decades. We need more power to flow to workers and less to bosses. And we need taxes on high earners to level the playing field and pay for investments in public goods.
That is common sense!