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.

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