Canada needs a “Conservative renaissance,” former prime minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday, but he cautioned that Pierre Poilievre should wait until an election before telling Canadians how he might run the country.
Harper delivered a speech that evening to a room of party faithful staged by the Canada Strong and Free Network, formerly called the Manning Centre.
His public appearance is a rare one for Harper, who exited political life after losing the 2015 election to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals after nine years in power.
Poilievre's election as party leader last September appears to have changed that, with Harper throwing his endorsement behind Poilievre, which was the first time he had done so for a Conservative leader.
Introduced as a "statesman" of the party, Harper mounted a defence of the term "populism," which he said is often portrayed in a negative or imprecise light by what he called the "liberal media."
"Our country is badly in need of a Conservative renaissance at the national level," he told the crowd.
Harper reminded the audience that the modern Conservative party was built from the populism in Western Canada, a sense of nationalism in Quebec and Tories from Ontario.
He said its owes credit to Preston Manning, founder of the populist Reform Party, a precursor to the Canadian Alliance, which merged with the Progressive Conservatives to form the Conservative Party of Canada.
Harper and Manning then shared the stage Wednesday for what organizers billed as a "fireside chat" about the legacy of the Reform Party.
During the talk, the former Conservative prime minister quipped about foreign election interference, telling the crowd "I hear it's topical" and referred to the federal NDP as a "branch plant" for entering into a supply-and-confidence agreement with the Liberal government.
Only its leader Jagmeet Singh could enter into a deal with the Liberals and leave with nothing, Harper told the room.
As for Poilievre — whom Harper at one point referred to as first meeting as a "very tiny Reformer" — the former prime minister said if he forms the next government, Poilievre would be leading under much tougher circumstances than he ever did.
In the meantime, Harper said Poilievre's job as Opposition leader is to hold Trudeau's government to account, rather than outline how he would run the country.
"That's the job."
He said until an election happens, Poilievre and his team should be developing with their alternative vision for the country looks like to be ready.