COMMENTARY: Maxime Bernier needs to get over leadership loss and move on
It’s one of the cardinal rules in politics, particularly when you lose an election. What’s done is done: best to move on with grace, even if you still seethe in silence, and wait for the next opportunity to reenter the fray.
Unless you are Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, that is.
Ten months after losing the party’s leadership to Andrew Scheer, the tears are apparently still flowing, and have pooled in the pages of a new book scheduled to be released a year ahead of the next federal election. In Doing Politics Differently: My Vision for Canada, Bernier writes that Scheer won due to “fake Conservatives” signed up from the dairy industry.
“Andrew, along with several other candidates, was then busy touring Quebec’s agricultural belt, including my own riding of Beauce, to pick up support from these fake Conservatives, only interested in blocking my candidacy and protecting their privileges,” writes Bernier.
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It is no secret that many milk producers opposed Bernier’s stance on supply management, a cartel-like system that artificially maintains high prices and incomes for farmers while restricting supply and increasing costs for consumers. During the leadership, Bernier repeatedly railed against the policy, with predictable results: the dairy lobby signed up scores of members for Scheer, who went on to win by the slimmest of margins. “Interestingly, one year later, most of them have not renewed their memberships and are not members of the party anymore,” Bernier sourly observes.
Actually, this information is not that interesting at all. Nor is it surprising. The use of special interest groups to win leaderships has a long and infamous tradition in all parties, at all levels of government. Whether you’re signing up youth with a pledge to legalize pot (hello, Justin Trudeau), or particular ethnic communities with a promise to oppose sex-ed curriculum changes (come on down, Patrick Brown), political organizers will recruit lots of one-issue instant members who vanish after the vote is over.
In the 2014 PC leadership, Brown signed up 41,000 members; his chief rival, Christine Elliott, signed up over 30,000. Two years later, after Brown’s sudden resignation, it was discovered that the party’s 200,000 members had actually dwindled to 127,000. Where were the rest? Had they all died or moved out of province? No: they were likely only around for the race, and once it was done, so were they. According to one Conservative source who spoke to the National Post, many memberships had simply expired and not been renewed. “It’s not as big a deal as it appears.”
Which is why it’s not worth exploring in a tell-all campaign book, either. It’s not that the practice is defensible, but the fact that one would be shocked that it occurs betrays a serious case of political naivete.
It also reveals the blind spot which likely lost Bernier the leadership: overplaying the conviction card.
In an attempt to distinguish himself from Scheer, he sought to define himself as the principled conservative, rather than the middle-of-the-road Tory. One of the points of difference was their stance on supply management. But rather than simply making the point once or twice, and then moving on to other policy planks, Bernier beat the issue to death, in interview after interview, thereby provoking the dairy cartel into a predictable frenzy of self-protection. This was a huge strategic mistake, and one which was thoroughly preventable.
Now, Bernier is at risk of making another one. If he has future leadership aspirations, knifing Scheer by questioning the integrity of his victory is no way to get there. Bernier can do far better: he is a smart, thoughtful man with a lot of substance, not a kid who starts a food fight in the Tory cafeteria. The only winners here are the Liberals, who are doubtless overjoyed that the Conservatives are busy cannibalizing each other rather than roasting the government. That won’t win Bernier any friends on the Tory benches. Rather than help Trudeau keep a hold on power, Bernier would be wiser to let sleeping cows lie.
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