The battle for a semi-rural riding south of Ottawa has all the makings of something personal for the Liberals.
Conservative Pierre Poilievre won it in 2015, but not by very much over his Liberal challenger.
A dogged, potent parliamentary critic, Poilievre has spent the last four years rankling the Liberal government. He’s pushed it on everything from Justin Trudeau’s broken pledge to balance the budget, to contentious tax changes, to the ethical controversies that have encircled its most senior figures.
The Conservatives’ top agitator has directed his sharpest barbs at Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau — whom he’s dubbed the “trust-fund twins” for their upper-class upbringings.
Poilievre has been an MP since 2004. In this election campaign, however, Poilievre may be vulnerable in his own seat of Carleton. And the Liberals have been making a push for it.
The former Conservative cabinet minister, who’s won five straight elections in the region, defeated Liberal candidate Chris Rodgers four years ago by a margin of fewer than 2,000 votes.
Poilievre’s riding was created by a redistribution before that election, which carved apart rural Carleton and more suburban Nepean. Carleton was seen as the safe half for Conservatives. In the event, it was the only riding out of eight in the nation’s capital that withstood a 2015 Liberal wave across the region.
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But after coming as close as they did last time, Trudeau’s team has directed considerable firepower at an effort to win it in 2019.
Prominent Liberals, including Morneau and Trudeau himself, have made a number of public appearances in Poilievre’s constituency. Trudeau went to Carleton twice in the summer — once on Canada Day and again this month, just a couple of days before the official launch of the election campaign. He headlined a raucous partisan rally for Rodgers, who’s running again, steps from Poilievre’s riding office.
Poilievre, who served most recently as the Conservatives’ finance critic, said he isn’t surprised the Liberals are gunning for his seat.
“There’s no one in Canada that Justin Trudeau would rather see out of the House of Commons than me,” he said in an interview.
“When I quarrel with the government it’s not out of some delight of making them uncomfortable. It’s to constantly inculcate the notion that government is the servant, not master. That we do not show up at work in Parliament to kneel down and praise the executive branch.”
Even since the redistribution four years ago, intense suburban construction has been expanding across the northern part of the riding.
“The challenge is that these new residents don’t know me yet,” said Poilievre, who was minister of democratic reform and minister of employment and social development under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
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“There are some people who are falling behind, but most tell us they’re getting by. Almost none tell us that they’re getting ahead. And I believe that’s the principal issue of the campaign — who do people trust to make life more affordable so they can get ahead?”
He says he wants to champion a message of hard work and entrepreneurship, while showing voters a plan that can help people save for their kids’ education and enable young people to buy their first homes.
During one recent afternoon of canvassing, Poilievre told locals at their doors that their taxes are “going to go through the roof” if Trudeau’s re-elected.
He insists he’s knocked on tens of thousands of doors in the district as part of his re-election campaign. To reach as many voters as possible, Poilievre even sprints from one door to another to keep up with multiple campaign volunteers.
Rodgers, a high-school teacher and volunteer, has also been busy. He’s spent the last four years introducing himself to more and more people in Carleton.
“It has given me an opportunity to strengthen my relationships with folks in the community,” Rodgers said in an interview in the village of Greely — part rural hamlet, part Ottawa suburb — between meetings with seniors.
“We have built up a true grassroots movement in this community — we can win.”
Rodgers said voters in Carleton are concerned about affordability issues and infrastructure, including a lack of reliable internet access and roads that have failed to keep up with the rapid development. He intends to fight for local initiatives that he says haven’t been on the table for the last 15 years, such as light-rail service to one area and the construction of a community centre. Federal money could help those along.
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Speaking to the seniors, he promoted the Liberals’ record of expanding the Canada Pension Plan, lowering income taxes in the middle bracket and providing extra support for older people.
Rodgers can list off the visits from high-profile Liberals to provide a boost to his campaign, but he insisted they had nothing to do with his opponent.
“The Liberals would like to elect Chris Rodgers, that is our goal … We are motivated by the things we want to achieve, not the things that we want to tear down,” he said.
“I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t think about Pierre that often.”