How do they get away with it?

Peter MacKay and Maxime Bernier have been way off-message this year, but Harper hasn’t slapped them down

by John Geddes

How do they get away with it?

MacKay (left) made a fuss over a U.A.E. request for landing rights; Bernier proposed freezing the size of government | Mike Dembeck/CP; Adrian Wyld/CP

In a government defined by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rigid control, Peter MacKay and Maxime Bernier go their own ways. The Conservatives might sell themselves as the party of small-town values and suburban lifestyle, but MacKay and Bernier dress with big-city flair and have kept company with glamorous women. And during memorable stretches of 2010, they were the two most interesting federal Tories for more substantial reasons—MacKay for the way he pushed the boundaries of cabinet discipline, Bernier for how he made being a backbencher matter.

Many wonder how they get away with it. After all, neither was playing from an obvious position of strength. Bernier had looked marginalized when he resigned as foreign minister in 2008, after he left confidential briefing papers at the Montreal home of his former girlfriend Julie Couillard, whose past romantic links to Quebec’s notorious biker gangs had already raised eyebrows. MacKay is an old-school Maritime Tory who has never seemed in his element among Harper’s hybrid team of erstwhile Western Reformers and veterans of former Ontario premier Mike Harris’s provincial regime.

Yet both cut a swath. It’s not just because they vie for standing as the most eligible Parliament Hill bachelors. (Bernier, 47, has kept his romantic life private since breaking up with Couillard, while MacKay, 45, is dating human rights activist Nazanin Afshin-Jam, 31, a former Miss World Canada). Alone among federal Tories, Bernier openly agitated for spending cuts, even as the government racked up record deficits. And more than once, back when Harper was promising a full military exit from Afghanistan next year, MacKay signalled that he was open to the possibility of somehow extending Canada’s mission. Rather than being brought to heel, he waited as the government finally came around to troops staying on in a training capacity.

But MacKay’s most unguarded off-message moments came when a cabinet rift emerged over a push from the United Arab Emirates for more landing rights at Canadian airports for its state-owned airlines. As defence minister, MacKay apparently favoured making a deal, since the U.A.E. was hosting the Canadian Forces at Camp Mirage, a not-so-secret base for supplying the Afghanistan mission. But others in cabinet, notably former transport minister John Baird, argued against it. Harper ultimately sided with Baird, costing Canada the use of that air base.

The story might have amounted to nothing more than leaked accounts of the cabinet-table spat. But MacKay didn’t play it that way. First, he spoke publicly about the need to repair damaged relations with the U.A.E. Next, he appeared last month on Parliament Hill sporting a “Fly Emirates” baseball cap. In a strange twist, when a fire alarm was pulled on Parliament Hill, a radio reporter overheard MacKay chatting outside with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Tory Sen. Michael Meighen, telling them he wore the cap for the benefit of Baird. If the incident was too jokey to rank as mutinous, it was at least mildly rebellious.

Why is there no sign of MacKay being brought to heel? The answer lies partly in his unique history with his boss. MacKay was leading the old Conservative party when Harper, then Canadian Alliance leader, reached out to propose a merger in 2003. The problem was that MacKay, on his way to winning the Tory leadership earlier that year, had promised not to merge with the Alliance. He pressed ahead with the unite-the-right deal anyway, taking a huge personal political risk. Harper owed him. Still, that IOU alone wouldn’t have sustained MacKay this long. In cabinet, he strengthened his hand by playing the traditional role of a “regional minister”—a kingpin not just for his home province of Nova Scotia, but for all the Atlantic provinces.

According to University of Moncton public administration professor Donald Savoie, MacKay is a classic regional minister. Savoie points to stable funding for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, defence spending in the region, and federal support for the “Atlantic Gateway” deal with the four East Coast provinces to promote the region as a shipping hub. “You can see Peter MacKay’s hand in it all,” Savoie says. He stresses that he’s not an unbiased observer: Savoie is a friend of MacKay’s father, Elmer MacKay, who was a minister in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, and held the Central Nova seat his son now represents.

Peter MacKay carries on a Tory tradition he inherited directly from his father’s generation. It’s a pragmatic approach, built around regional loyalties, with an instinctive respect for brokerage politics. (Indeed, the U.A.E.’s request for something in return for Camp Mirage arguably fits neatly with that horse-trading political style.) MacKay is not an isolated relic. Savoie says the entire Atlantic wing of the Conservative party was barely touched by the ideological turmoils of the 1990s that remade the right side of the political spectrum in the West and Ontario. “The old PC party,” he says, “is really still the Conservative party in Atlantic Canada.”

Not so in Quebec. There the party has never fully recovered since Mulroney’s heyday. Yet a sort of ideological conservative reawakening might now be happening in Quebec, marked by the recent creation of the Réseau Liberté-Québec, or Quebec Freedom Movement. Near the centre of Quebec’s new smaller-government talk is Maxime Bernier. His father, Gilles Bernier, was a Tory MP under Mulroney. There is no Bernier clan parallel, though, to the MacKay political inheritance. Maxime appreciates his father’s example as a riding politician, but beyond that he doesn’t emulate the Mulroney-era way. Asked if he models himself on his father, he said flatly, “No, he was more a conventional politician.”

Conventional is not a label anyone would pin on the younger Bernier. He emerged from the ignominious end of his run in Harper’s cabinet, first as industry and then foreign minister, to establish himself as a leading voice of small-government libertarianism. After his exit from cabinet in the spring of 2008, he went on to hold his Beauce riding, south of Quebec City, in that fall’s federal election. Bernier told Maclean’s he decided to spend a year mostly away from the public spotlight, tending to his constituency and reading up on the economic crisis then rattling the globe.

That low-profile sojourn ended early this year, when he accepted an invitation to speak to Conservatives in Calgary. With the federal government entering its second year of record deficit spending, Bernier proposed a simple, radical alternative—freeze the size of government. “And I’m not saying zero growth adjusted for inflation and population or GDP increase,” he said. “Just zero growth.” Positive reviews rippled through right-of-centre policy circles and among Conservatives who were uncomfortable with the fiscal path the Harper government was on. Almost immediately, requests began to pour in for Bernier to address think tanks, Tory riding associations and various clubs.

He’s been going pretty much non-stop ever since. Often his message is meat-and-potatoes—smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation. Occasionally, he wades in on a niche issue, as he did when he broke with most other Quebec Tory MPs by voicing his opposition to federal funding for a new NHL-ready arena in Quebec City. On Oct. 13, Bernier went a long stride further. In a speech at Toronto’s Albany Club, a venue with a storied Tory past, he called for the federal government to end the nearly $30-billion Canada Health Transfer to the provinces. He says Ottawa should transfer tax points instead, allowing provinces to raise the money to pay for health care themselves.

Of course, Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty haven’t come close to such a transformative policy. Why don’t they yank Bernier into line? After all, unlike MacKay, Bernier doesn’t represent a regional wing or a historic current in the party that demands respect. But he does appeal to a core of ideologically committed supporters who want their ideas heard. “The fact that he hasn’t been swatted down by the Conservative power establishment is saying something,” says Peter Holle, president of the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy. “I think there’s sympathy for the general direction that Maxime Bernier is pushing.”

It seems that as long as Bernier and MacKay keep appealing to sympathizers in their very different constituencies, they’ll be allowed to keep straying from Harper’s approved script in an Ottawa where individuality of their sort is in short supply.




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How do they get away with it?

  1. In the case of MacKay, you have somebody that unofficially represents the former PCs and Atlantic Conservatives. Smacking him down would send a message that would damage the support of those two elements of the party. I'd also hasten to add that MacKay has otherwise consistently toed the party line. In the case of Bernier, you have somebody that speaks on behalf of a sizable segment of the party's grassroots. Again, smacking him down would send the wrong message to those folks. In either case, their straying off-message hasn't been terribly dramatic, nor has it been politically costly to the brand. When either one of them actually comes out and publicly questions the leadership of Harper… THEN you'll see the ol' Conservative smackdown.

    • Plus, MacKay's daddy gave him that riding and he won't give it to that mean Mr. Harper!

  2. I live in MacKay's riding. He got my vote last time, but I am tired of Harper and Baird. Sucks to have to vote against a guy you like — especially since it would be a wasted vote. This article further complicates my conundrum. Then again, mildly and ineffectually appearing to oppose the Dear Leader might be a good strategy to keep former PC voters happy.

    • isn't our Democracy wonderful??

    • What if everybody is secretly thinking what you are?

  3. And if he did , as you say 'Slap them dowN".he is accused of being all controlling!
    Merry Christmas, and let it go!

    • Did anyone accuse Harper of anything?

      Don't let your insecurity show, it's a give away at how you know, deep down inside, that Harper is not actually a conservative.

  4. Bernier sounds like the very ultra-conservative tea party people in the USA. If he wants smaller government, he should quit politics – that would save one salary.

  5. So it sounds like Harper can't smackdown either of them because they're actual conservatives.

  6. Of late I keep reading references to the boys of alliance reform…….
    that is so wrong……nothing they do resembles 'the old reform party' –
    which in the end was destroyed by them when Conservatives after
    Mulrooney, had one seat left – Joe Clark –
    the whole idea they are anything like Reform is nuts! who keeps
    telling the press to write this crap?

  7. The conservative party is Canada's Tea Party, full of right-wing nutbars and fundamentalist furor. Canadians should fear this group, they are a threat in every way.

    • I agree. Who keeps voting for these people? They are truly frightening.

      • clearly lots of people keep voting for them – we need a strong alternative and a message with hope and substance.

    • Would you rather have Iggy who doesn't seem to have a clue on how to run a party. That's the alternative?

    • better than being a pinko leftist

  8. I consider the point that Harper has a minority gov't and can't seem to break into a safe and consistent majority percentage in the polls.
    Deficit spending, troop withdrawal etc, are required to appease the opposition and prevent another minority Gov't that can't do crap to make a difference in this country. My crystal ball does not tell me if a Harper majority would be a blessing or a disaster, but given the present choices I'ld prefer Harper got a shot at it. Call me Reform bent, but this country needs one hell of a jolt as it is falling to pieces.
    All parties sucking up for the immigrant vote is an example of what makes me want to upchuck,
    OLPHAWT (but a CAnadian one)

    • Minus one billion.

  9. Stephen Harper is not a control freak obviously, time for the leftists here to go berserk with 'counter-arguments' LOL…..

  10. Didn't say he wasn't a control freak but slightly better suited to turn this country around than the dingalings in waiting.

  11. JMHO but the "approved script" has been working well as a defense tactic for the less experienced MPs as it drives the opposition and the media crazy, lol.

    The phrase "but Harper hasn't slapped them down" maintains the negative spin (stale I might add) that all MPs are on a short leash.

  12. Bernier 2011!

  13. JUST ANOTHER BUNCH OF CONSERVATIVE ASSHOLES
    IF THEY DON'T SMARTEN UP THEY WILL NOT BE GOVERNMENT NEXT ELECTION

    • All caps doesn't make your argument more cohesive or convincing, it just makes you seem loud.

      • I was going for un-educated malcontent but loud works too.

  14. Harper is all we have! Surely there is no sane Canadian who could possibly even think of supporting the Liberals after so many scandalous years of open-faced and outright corruption, and craven catering to Quebec. Where were the "sponsorship" millions for the other 9 provinces?

  15. Harper is simply avoiding differences between himself and Tory MLA's as he's planning on calling a spring election and how bad would it look to once again be the total 'control freak' that he is. Also, he's trying hard not to upset any regions for the same reason – he doesn't want to lose any votes. He'll continue on his present bend to present himself as mr. conciliatory in the hope that he'll finally get his coveted majority. If and when that happens, then we'll see the real steven harper once again.

  16. "…MacKay, 45, is dating human rights activist Nazanin Afshin-Ja…" what kind of self-respecting human rights activist would be seen with THIS turd?

  17. I think its exctly that…both represent two of the extremes of the party and Harper is carefully towing the line= between the more moderate conns and the Big C Cons…the whole partty is a party of extremes with fundamentalists thrown in for good measure. He plays it quite well – I doubt he'd let one of his religious fundamentalists speak out like he does either of these two. That's the kinda thing he tries to hide, while these two represent extremes he wants folks to know are 'covered'…like him or hate him, he's savvy, no doubt about it

  18. I'ld also bet on Kenney. His latest anouncement on keeping the immigrant inflow as is doesn' t mean that he is pro immigration, just sucking for votes like everybody else. Them's the rules everybody plays by.
    Could it possibly be time for a cons leadership convention before the next election???

    • I think I speak for the 70% of Canadians who really really don't like the conservatives when I implore you to declare your candidacy for leadership.

  19. Forgot to ask Colby. How would we connect to the New Canadian bloc? Sounds like it could be something to suit my Reform bent.

  20. I agree that Bernier off leash is simply a bone tossed to real limited-government conservatives, with the dual purpose of (a) preventing them from just staying home in future elections, lamenting the disappearance of anyone with a lick of fiscal sense, and-or (b) gathering in frustration to calve off a Reform-style political party.

    • Hey everyone! Come quick! Some guy just said Maxime "we just set the budget at the same dollar amount each year, with no increase for inflation" Bernier had fiscal sense!

      • You really are a dope. The voters looking for fiscal sense are royally pissed with these clowns currently running our government. Is what I wrote.

        Keep this up and you shall join Emily on my auto-ignore list.

        • I think that without a statement that the attempt to "throw a bone", as it were, is a failure, then your statement can still bear my meaning, regardless of your intent. If it were not so, why would these "real conservatives" be placated by Bernier's speeches?

  21. "Kenney is the Great White Hope of the party's Western Reform wing, which remains fundamentally anti-immigrant. " Really? Where do you get that idea? Alberta's population grew by 50% in the past 20 years, with a large proportion of that immigrants. The oil industry would have ground to a halt without them moving here. Our public education ministry provides 2nd-language immersion in about 10 different languages. Why would that happen if we were so anti-immigrant?

    From a 2009 Edmonton Social Planning Council newsletter: "…With only 11% of the Canadian population, Alberta is home to one in four temporary foreign workers…" http://www.edmontonsocialplanning.ca/index.php?op

    BC's population has also grown significantly due to immigrants, yet alot of Conservative MPs are getting elected in BC, too. And don't give me the crap about no CPC MPs in Vancouver, there are Conservative MPs across every bridge and border of the city. Vancouver has a population of around 8-900k but the Lower Mainland (all those burbs) is around 3 million, and there are plenty of Conservative MPs in the Lower Mainland.

    You're talking through your hat.

  22. Both can hold their seat without Harper's blessing because of work done by their more capable fathers. Yet they don't have power bases to challenge Harper, and their public personsae both have a bit of the doofus in them. And letting them run on appears to keep some people happy, and doesn't appear to have much consequence.

  23. My theory, Harper really likes Bernier, he was sorely dissapointed when he blew it, had to distance himself just in case he did it again but he is happy to see him now doing his thing, he would support him if he wants to go further. And with Mackay it's ok, they tend to disagree and make up, they need each other.

    • still think there is something fishy about the bernier thing, would be interesting to find out if she had any connection to any of the opposition parties

  24. I think the writer & the posters on this article are a bit off the mark.
    I think our PM has been encouraging both MacKay & especially
    Bernier to say the things they have been.
    When the conservatives get their majority, some of those things,ie
    smaller government, health care changes will come to pass.
    They are the front men, laying the groundwork.

  25. You cannot take money from the United States and not be a slave to them, that is the bottom line. Harper will not do anything his American masters do not want him to do. Dismantle the health care system, privatize everything, including cpp that is what you people want, but then again you are all self centered and wealthy because you all, can afford it.

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