Spoken like a true Conservative - Macleans.ca

Spoken like a true Conservative

COYNE: Many insist that Bernier is merely giving voice to what the leader himself believes


Jacques Boissinot/ CP

Let’s just pause for a moment to consider what an extraordinary thing Maxime Bernier is attempting. The former minister in the Harper government is widely said to be preparing the ground for a future leadership bid. How has he been going about it? Since January, Bernier has been methodically laying explosives beneath the government and detonating them at regular intervals, in speeches and writings that, while not overtly criticizing Conservative policy, point in precisely the opposite direction to that on which the government happens to be embarked.

In a January speech to Calgary Conservatives, Bernier called for a policy of “zero budget growth,” an absolute cap on government spending—as distinct from, say, the seven per cent per annum growth track of which the government often boasts. As Bernier noted, such a policy would require that “every new government program, or increase in an existing program, has to be balanced by a decrease somewhere else.” Indeed, it would imply a diminishing government share of the economy over time. Conservatives, he said, “have to convince people that we’re not simply aiming to be better managers of a bigger government; we are aiming to be better managers of a smaller government.” The implied rebuke was made explicit in his penultimate line: “If we want conservative principles to win the battle, we have to defend them openly, with passion and with conviction.” As opposed to stealthily, with furtiveness and deception.

The dust had barely settled when Bernier struck again. In a February letter to La Presse, he observed that “it is possible to be ‘sceptical,’ or at any rate to keep an open mind, on almost all the crucial aspects of the global warming thesis.” It was phrased as support for the government’s “cautious” stance at Copenhagen, but of course it was anything but. The Harper government’s official position is that global warming is settled science—in his spell at Environment, John Baird used to warn of “the end of winter as we know it”—and that, far from cautious, its emissions reductions targets are unparalleled in their ambition, or whatever grandiloquent phrase party members have been instructed to repeat. It may be a lie, and it may be that everyone knows it is a lie. But Conservatives are not permitted to say that it is a lie.

And so it continues. In a speech last week in Mont St-Grégoire, Que., Bernier hit out at his province’s sorry record of dirigisme and debt, and most of all at its prickly insistence that the rest of Canada should foot the bill for its fecklessness for the past 40 years while it pondered whether to blow the place up. There was, he correctly noted, a fundamental contradiction in separatists who seek political independence at the same time as economic dependence. Yet, he was equally scornful of “profitable federalists” who use the separatist threat to extract more money from the feds. “Even when the amounts being sent by Ottawa increase, the reaction in Quebec City is always that it’s not enough, we need more.”

All well and good, except that is exactly the approach endorsed by the Harper government. Remember the “fiscal imbalance”? It was official Tory policy that Quebec was being shortchanged by the federation, and by God they would put it right. Which they did, to the tune of billions of dollars, though fat lot of good it did them.

I cannot think of a precedent for this performance. Bernier is careful not to attack the party’s current leadership—just everything they’ve been doing. Yet he could hardly be accused of heresy. He represents, to paraphrase Howard Dean, the Conservative wing of the Conservative party—the party’s soul, its core beliefs, varnished as they may be under layers of expediency, yet still there. Indeed, so contorted has the Conservative party become that many people insist he is merely giving voice to what the leader himself believes.

Bernier does not disavow future leadership ambitions, but for now says his goal is merely to get back into cabinet. Either way, this is something new. Former ministers usually crawl back into the leader’s favour by conspicuous displays of loyalty. If they have leadership ambitions, they usually work the backrooms, quietly cultivating party organizers, waiting either for the current leader to step down or for their chance to put the knife in.

Bernier’s tack seems rather aimed at making himself impossible to ignore, as the authentic representative of a significant section of the party. It is a highly public and explicitly ideological appeal. This, too, is novel, at least in the recent history of Canadian politics. Leadership races have here generally been decided on the basis of organizational prowess, or personal popularity, or the ability to deliver one region of the country or another.

By contrast, Bernier’s approach would seem more drawn from British or American politics, less regional than factional, appealing to a base of ideologically motivated supporters that transcends region. Indeed, as a libertarian conservative from Quebec, he may find he has more supporters in the West.

I don’t suggest he will be leader, or should. His record in cabinet was decidedly mixed: a fine industry minister, he was a disaster at Foreign Affairs. Though the speeches are thoughtful, it remains unclear whether there is a man of substance behind them, not least after the Couillard fiasco. Yet his willingness to state brave truths openly, to call the party back to its authentic self, marks him as one to watch.


Spoken like a true Conservative

  1. If Bernier can erase his image as a "mimbo", then he could be a very credible replacement for Harper. A francophone could lead the Conservatives to a majority government, as long as he doesn't alienate the west.

    • Uh, careful there Fred. Just because he's francophone doesn't mean he would get enough seats in Quebec. There's been some serious bridges burned by Harper in Quebec and Bernier isn't that distant from his boss.

    • I doubt Berniers record of forgetting sensitive briefcases will help him win an election even if he won the leadership contest.

  2. I'm certain Mr. Bernier will be thanking you for this article. With Mr. Harper appearing to like complete control over his caucus, you may have just anointed the next leader of a new, as yet unformed grassroots political party in Canada!

    Unless of course, Mr. Bernier knows something about Mr. Harper that the rest of Canada is not privy to.


  3. Another goofball who denies the truth about climate change.

    • Some may say the same thing of you believing in the corrupt and fraudulent Eco movement

      • Let's no worry about movements, I don't care much for them.
        All I know is that the science, unsettled as it may be, indicates the very strong possibility that humans have accelerated the natural process that is climate change (and it was always called cilmate change). And that most attempts at discrediting the science have failed miserably.

  4. Future leadership bids for the right wing:
    1) Canada:
    – Bernier
    – Guergis
    2) USA:
    – Palin

    I hope so… having those individuals as leadership candidates will finally get the Liberals back in for Canada, and will keep Obama in as President of the States… go ahead right wing – I am looking forward to the clown like atmosphere, as well, a good laugh…

    • Umm, there's kind of an important difference between Guergis & Bernier: she's toast & he's not.

      And the Palin=Bernier thing, yeah, whatever. This is a tired, standard thing we see from the Canadian left: pick really ridiculous, despised right-wing politician in the US, and claim that some prominent Canadian conservative is the same thing (e.g., Harper= Bush). I guess doing that is way easier than, say, thinking.

      • Sorry Kel liberals will not have power in this country for a very very long time, when the new seats are in place in western Canada,leberals will hopefully be shut out for good, by the west in don't include Victoria or Vancouver as you cannot tell any difference between those cities and TO anyway.

  5. I love posts on web forums from people who write off politicians : to me this is the ultimate statement by the politically naive : I could list here every PM and cabinet minister that has ever served our country and guarantee that the majority of them who went on after a scandal to dominate a specific area of expertise. Harper, Chretien, Mulroney, et all had scandals in their early days and have been written off more than once – the toe tags were placed firmly on the toes and the temp turned down and yet .. lo and behold they went on to totally outplay their adversaries – what people forget that the mark of greatness is the RESURRECTION the journey from the long walk in the snow to that of being politically reborn despite all the critics is exactly what marks the sign of a great poltician. It would not surprise me in the least if ol maxime ended up Premier let's say because between you and me and the wall it isn't Harper's job he is after right now but Charests! – and who knows maybe he and Stevie boy are having a hearty laugh about what plans they may have right now.

  6. Seems a lifetime ago that the NP carried a second section front page story on Maxime's devotion to Bastiat. If you don't know what that means, go do some reading. There is hope for our country if it's not all talk. Ideas are more poweful than armies and rational economics is going to be front and centre as the world implodes under the Keynsian fiction it has mortgaged its future to. Also a reasonable hope that Congressman Paul down south has a good chance in the 2012 presidential kabuki.

  7. Wherry's been posting these little nuggets from Bernier for months. It's caused rightwing nutjobs like myself no end of grief: we rock back and forth trying to figure out whether Bernier is an idiot savant or just an idiot with a good speech writer, and eventually we curl up into a fetal position and cry.

    If I understand Coyne's piece correctly, the suggestion is that Bernier is simply positioning himself for a leadership bid and may or may not actually believe or understand the things he is currently saying.

    The cynicism is too much….I … I …. can't take it any more.

    • "…rightwing nutjobs like myself… and…curl up…and cry"

      Geez, that can actually seem endearing Gaunilon. Now I understand how a right wing nut can have so many cred points. Good job buddy.

    • Bernier's no idiot. Don't let the Couillard episode fool you. Bernier is Sara Palin with brains. People should look into what he did during his time at the Economic Institute. He's a purist.

      I'm clear on where Bernier stands on fiscal issues (far right) but where is he on social stuff? If his time at foreign affairs is any indication, I think Bernier is a progressive on that front.

  8. Mr Coyne says "Let's just pause for a moment to consider what an extraordinary thing Maxime Bernier is attempting." This is total nonsense and there is nothing extraordinary about it. Conservatives always talk about small government, reduced spending and lower taxes BEFORE THEY HAVE GOVERNING POWER, then they spend like crazy when in power trying to hold onto it. Mulroney and Harper just happen to be the latest examples and Bernier is following right along. In Harper's case it would be very easy to make a long list of things he is doing now that are exactly the opposite of what he promised before taking power; the list of incidences where he has kept his promises is a short list indeed. Bernier is no different in his ability to forget what he promises, it appears he's just not quite as good at it.

  9. I'm going to make a prediction (and hopefully it will be preserved on this thread forever so I can refer to it when it comes true) that Stephen Harper will win a majority government after a spring 2011 election and will resign in 2014. In the eventual leadership race, Jean Charest will dither for months before deciding not to run, or run and drop out right away, and the finalists will include Peter Mackay, Maxime Bernier and a former Harris Tory (Clement, Baird or Flaherty). I don't know who will win, but in the October 2015 election, this new Tory Leader will face up against a 67y/o Bob Rae who I predict will be obese by then.

    Don't bother replying to my prediction because I'm not interested in your opinions…

    • Don't bother posting your opinion because I'm not interested….@#@#! – too late.

    • Don't bother posting your opinion because I'm not interested….@#@#! – too late.

    • Sorry Pete i couldn't help but reply, but please understand its only to agree and add i hope your prediction becomes fact,any conservative leader who goes up against BooB Rae is sure to form a large majority.

  10. TITLE
    should read
    Spoken Like a True Republican.
    This Conservative government is not progressive. I object to calling these values those of a True Conservative in Canada. Exploiting the goodwill built by Progressive Conservatives is one of the foundations of Harpers 'success'. It is dishonest and misleading.
    These Conservatives place the highest priority on money as opposed to Canada's needs or appropriate government services.
    I don't understand why Coyne spins this new paradigm. I appreciate his writing but I can't tell whether he understands and is a party to spin or just working to catch the spin by the tail.

  11. Great summary, Mr. Coyne. Indeed, it has been a fascinating, frank display of the core principles that drove a citizen to seek public office, and, regardless of how much (or how little) permission he has to spout off with this bizarre political verbiage we call the truth, it is a thoroughly well-deserved slap in the face of the current governing party.

    My suspicions, take 'em for full value of price paid: He HAS permission. He is the designated trial balloonist. If Canada laughs him off with "Sarah Palin" and "teabagger" and "Couillard's cleavage" and whatnot, Harper retreats back into his current bunker of mush. If enough of Canada says "Hell, yeah, this is what a Conservative government is actually supposed to look like," then maybe Harper gets the guts to start acting like a conservative PM.

    So: Hell, yeah, this is what a Conservative government is actually supposed to look like!

    Hey, wait a minute, people — aren't WE the Conservative Party? It needs to be said loud and often. About bloody time ONE of them is saying so.

    • Yeah, I agree. The Conservatives have turned decidedly non-conservative. Bernier as a backbencher can talk more freely with his views, to see how people react. As a former cabinet minister (who lost his position in a very high profile way), he's going to get more media attention then a nobody.

      If nothing else, I want to see more of this. Let's have politicians who express real views, and defend them. Let's have people take positions on tough issues. Let's have policy discussions that involve actual policy. Let's have some real politicial leadership.

  12. Perhaps it's the opposite! Maybe the idea is to send a message to moderate Canadians that the strong right (but not social conservative faction) is cowed into submission by Harper. See, everyone? It's only that fool Bernier, and what harm can he really do?

  13. "Bernier hit out at his province's sorry record of dirigisme and debt, and most of all at its prickly insistence that the rest of Canada should foot the bill for its fecklessness for the past 40 years while it pondered whether to blow the place up. There was, he correctly noted, a fundamental contradiction in separatists who seek political independence at the same time as economic dependence"

    Are you paraphrasing Bernier? or are you paraphrasing yourself in the spirit of Bernier's words?

    As a description of his performance this part of the write is heavy handed with anti-Quebec sentiment. Considering the numbers just don't support the kind of claim that Québec is Canada's moneyhole, and that these are not Bernier's word, this makes for a pretty nonfactual depiction.

    An otherwise good assessment soiled because you just couldn't pass up the Québec hate.

    • "the numbers just don't support the kind of claim that Québec is Canada's moneyhole"

      You're funny. And I don't mean funny looking.

      • "Even when the amounts being sent by Ottawa increase, the reaction in Quebec City is always that it's not enough, we need more"

        As though you wouldn't do the same if you felt ripped off. You know, if Québec really is getting too much transfer money, why not just prove it instead of going out of your way to demonise Quebecers.

        It's amasing how the people who say there's reason to be skeptical about the Global Warming Thesis will not review the numbers behind their hole in Quebec's finance thesis. At least those numbers are readily available.

        • You remind me of the people (some of whom populate this site) who claim that the National Energy Program was good for Alberta.

          There are also people who claim that the moon landings didn't happen.


        • Could you post some links, Andre? I'm curious to see where you're getting these numbers, as they don't jibe with what I've heard, but I'll admit I haven't looked into it very much.

          • This is weird. I post two replies before and both have simply disappeared, not just deleted.

  14. I see Jim Prentice is slowing coming out of his self induced coma and
    regaining his memory, bit by bit, piece by piece.

    And those neo-right cowboys rode out of the plains Alberta and into Ottawa loudly screaming they were going to clean up the joint. Yeah.

    Andy, are you starting to connect those dots or are you still aimlessly wandering around out in the bush?

  15. Not if he alienates Que. either, which it looks like he's doing.

    • Cons rarely do well in Quebec. Bernier is not bothering anyone in Quebec who doesn't already hate him but I bet his Quebecers are poor man of Confederation ideas play well elsewhere.

    • Well, he may be alienating a lot of the press and various other establishment types, but I would suspect that there is a decent bunch of voters who would go for this. He offers a road to Quebec that is neither socialist separation or dependent federalism, but is based on economic independence and increased individual responsibility.

  16. Are Bernier's surprisingly candid statements sanctioned by Harper to give him (Harper) an indication of what the hot button issue might turn out to be in the next election that could give him a majority?

  17. “If we want conservative principles to win the battle, we have to defend them openly, with passion and with conviction.” As opposed to stealthily, with furtiveness and deception.

    This. This was what I was expecting from a Conservative government. Honesty, transparency, accountability. Too bad change is just more of the same.

  18. All the left vs right debate is stale, uninspiring and inconclusive when you realize that no matter who is in power they need to follow certain realities that rule whoever is ruling.
    That's the price of democracy in the 21st century.

  19. So much time and energy spent on politicians and their views. What about the voters?
    Everyone in this country who has balanced there personal cheque books knows what it takes to be a conservative. Its hard work, takes patience, sacrifice and tough decisions. Hard things to achieve when the voters would rather get what the can while the going is giving. Take BC for example. Every day the media points our another sad story about education cut and health cuts, not enough money blah blah. Never will our media explain to the voter why. (that would require real work rather than the usual pan shots of kids playing and spokespeople complaining). Every year more $$$ are dropped into these catagories but of course its never enough. So the voters get outraged demanding more money more money and the cycle continues till we are all broke.
    Its hard to be a Conservative government in this country. It sounds good on paper but when the time comes for those tough conservative decisions to be made the voters get angry and demand more money. Its easy to promise things we can't afford and unfortunately its even easier for our government to follow through with spending money that isn't ours to spend. If Voters of this country stopped whining over every tough decision that needs to be made in this country then maybe those interest payments could go to health and education.
    As always in Canada thats not our problem, its our grandchilds.

  20. I was shocked that his speech discussing Quebec was not bigger news. I was disappointed that we didn't hear about it on the CBC At Issue panel. Would have loved to hear Ms. Hebert talk about Quebec and how it is or is not being shortchanged in federation. I can't believe his speech didn't start a week of discussing the spoiled children charge.

  21. As one of those western libertarians, I have to say I do like what Bernier is saying. I am old enough to know though, that what politicians say often has little relevance to what they actually do. I will believe it when I see it.