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.