COMMENTARY: Bernier should tread carefully if he’s looking beyond Conservative party
It takes a lot to get Conservative leader Andrew Scheer cheesed off, but this week, one of his MPs crossed the line.
“I have removed Maxime Bernier from the Official Opposition shadow cabinet, effective immediately,” Scheer stated in a short communiqué. “The shadow minister for science, Matt Jeneroux, will assume the additional role of shadow minister for innovation, science and economic development on an interim basis.”
Bernier’s transgression? Posting to his website a chapter from his forthcoming book, in which he claims Scheer won the Tory leadership with help from “fake Conservatives” recruited by the Quebec dairy lobby. The chapter wasn’t new, but its location was. As Bernier posted on Twitter, “…The chapter on SM [supply management] posted on my website is THE SAME that was publicly available for weeks on my publisher’s website but was taken down when I decided to postpone the book indefinitely. There is nothing new, I did not ‘publish’ it.”
True, but the problem is the timing. Bernier posted it mere days after Canada got into a tariff war with the United States, in which U.S. President Donald Trump launched numerous broadsides at Canada’s supply management system. This effectively placed Bernier in the same camp as Trump, who had just torn a strip off Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over his remarks about “not being pushed around” by the Americans. With even Scheer standing by Trudeau, it was the wrong time for Bernier to go offside.
There were, however, also some cries of outrage against Scheer. Aren’t Conservatives supposed to be the party of free speech? Didn’t Scheer and the Tories lambaste Trudeau for his “group-think” mentality on abortion? This is true, but cabinet is not caucus. When you’re in a cabinet, shadow or not, you sing from the same songbook as your colleagues, whatever your personal views. No matter how valid your argument (and for the record, Bernier is right that supply management is well past its best before date) if you contradict your leader, you will be shown the cabinet door.
WATCH: Maxime Bernier removed from Tory shadow cabinet
Bernier surely would realize this — so why did he choose to milk this controversy? Is this really about ideas, or something else? Ever since his leadership loss to Scheer by the narrowest of margins, Bernier has not seemed to accept that his rival is now the big fromage.
In November 2017, he announced that he was writing a book, “about my vision of the country. What’s wrong with our country and how we can fix it.” In January 2018, he started a “Mad Max Club” on his personal website, encouraging supporters of freedom and liberty to join him in an “exclusive group” to champion these ideas across Canada.
Then in April, he published the offending chapter of the book in the Globe and Mail, openly questioning the validity of Scheer’s victory.
It’s true that Scheer won’t last forever in the job, but if polls are correct, he stands a shot at government, and could be around a while. Which leads to further speculation: maybe it’s not the Conservative party Bernier seeks to lead, but something else? And if so, what?
Overtures have already been made: after Bernier lost to Scheer last May, the leader of the Libertarian party, Tim Moen, offered to step aside for him, saying that the Libertarians planned to adopt Bernier’s ideas. “I know Max and he’s a solid libertarian,” Moen said. “He could take a lot of political market-share away from the Conservative Party,” he said. “I think they need to be disciplined by the market.”
WATCH: Conservative Tony Clement gives heated defence of colleague Maxime Bernier
The offer was never taken up, of course. But there is another federal party looking for a leader these days: the Bloc Quebecois. Leader Martine Ouellette quit last week, after a scathing leadership review gave her the support of a mere 32 per cent of party members.
The party has been in disarray for months: back in February, seven BQ MPs quit to sit as independents over conflicts with Ouellette. Within hours, Bernier called on them to join the Tories. “What I’m saying to my colleagues from the Bloc Québécois, if they believe in a strong Quebec, in a united Canada, they will come in our party. If they want to fight for Quebec interests and the interests of all Canadians, they will come in our party.”
None did so, but Bernier’s invitation must have given someone in the Tories an idea, as a couple of months later the Conservatives announced that former Bloc leader, Michel Gauthier, would join to “lend a hand” to Quebec candidates. “It’s the political party that’s the closest to Quebec nationalists, the most sensitive to Quebec,” Gauthier said when the news was announced to the party’s general council meeting in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.
Gauthier’s recruitment is part of the Tories’ larger strategy to make inroads in Quebec, which also included having Scheer make an appearance on the popular television program, Tout le Monde en Parle, which was well-received in the press and might help raise his name recognition in Quebec beyond its current 48 per cent.
Bernier’s name needs no such boost; his father was an MP before him, and he has been part of the Quebec political landscape since his election in 2006. Prior to that, he was active in provincial politics, working for the Parti Quebecois, a fact he has said he is “proud of.” “That’s why I believe in the Constitution, because I was inside a PQ government and I’ve seen what they’re doing and I say, when you respect the Constitution, that’s the best way to have a constitutional peace in Canada.”
While pulling a Lucien Bouchard might now be tempting for Bernier, he also has cultivated many friends and supporters in Alberta and other parts of Canada, and is more a champion of ideas than of one particular province. If this schism with Scheer grows beyond repair, though, might Bernier strike out on his own?
Political movements have been built around ideas and personality before — think Preston Manning’s Reform Party — but such exercises have also yielded bitter lessons for Canada’s right. Rather than curdling the Conservatives’ chance in the next election through word or deed, Bernier should carefully whey his options.
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