Here’s how Maxime Bernier imagines the 2019 election campaign, if he wins the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Justin Trudeau will roam the country unveiling bits of his platform at a seniors’ centre, an entrepreneur’s storefront and some random family’s kitchen table, each time promising funding or a policy that will help them. Bernier, meanwhile, might make the same rounds, but his message will be the same at every stop: “No, you won’t have that program. But I will lower your taxes.”
He can imagine the Liberal leader one day standing in front of some thematically appropriate backdrop to make a big pitch on education. And then Bernier envisions himself stepping to a podium and leaning into the microphone for his own education announcement. “Education is a provincial matter. We don’t have anything to do with that. So no, I don’t have an education program,” he will say. “Thank you.”
Where many politicians twist themselves into knots looking for a way to say yes to all, as Bernier heads into the final stretch of the Tory leadership race, he instead wants to offer a gleefully blunt “no.” No corporate subsidies, no boutique tax credits the Harper government so loved and no supply management jacking up grocery store prices.
In place of all that, Bernier preaches “individual freedom, personal responsibility, self-reliance”—a mantra he repeats in the rushed, singsong cadence of a thoroughly memorized grocery list. Of those, his main calling card is “freedom,” a curiously American-sounding gospel that, to Bernier, means lower taxes, fewer regulations and letting people decide what they want to do.
“The difference between us—the Conservatives—and the Liberals [is] they elevate the government. If you have a problem, the government will have a solution, a regulation, a legislation, a tax, a new program,” he says, sitting in a red velvet booth at a Quebec City hotel restaurant that’s probably chic by night but garish in the daylight. “For me, they downgrade the citizens and think the citizens are children and you must take their hands every step of their life.”
Bernier was once the black sheep of his party: ousted from Stephen Harper’s cabinet in 2008 for leaving secret files at a girlfriend’s house, he became a walking political punchline in suits so dapper, they somehow made the whole affair more ridiculous. But now, improbably, he’s ascended from comic relief and libertarian curiosity to become one of the front-runners in a Conservative leadership race so crowded that it’s a minor miracle no one has yet fallen off a debate stage. TV personality Kevin O’Leary edges Bernier in the latest polls as the May 27 vote draws near, but the second-place candidate lays claim to the lead in fundraising, saying his campaign raised just over $1 million in the first three months of 2017, and more than $2 million overall. His “No, we can’t” message has struck a hidden nerve in Canadian politics.
When Bernier launched his campaign a year ago, the MP from Beauce, just outside Quebec City, says pundits spent months scoffing, insisting he was trying to please a certain hard-core faction with a wild-eyed approach that would never win. Now, he maintains that if he does win the Tory leadership, he will not moderate his positions to appeal to a general-election audience. Rather, he intends to spend the two years before the next federal election making a case for his stark version of fairness, which means no special treats—whether you’re Bombardier or a family with two kids playing hockey—and a smaller government.
And Bernier argues voters will put on their big-boy and -girl pants and ﬂock to an approach he describes as “reasonable libertarian.” He figures the bigger the Trudeau government’s deficit gets, the better things look for him. “People want to have bold reform and they’re ready for that—our members, and the population also,” he says. This seems like a long shot in a country accustomed to a lot of government doing a lot of things. But it’s made Bernier the hero of a particular section of the Tory tent—former Reformers, young purists and westerners who have knighted him “the Albertan from Quebec”— that turns out to be bigger than many observers would have guessed.
To fully appreciate this unlikely turn in his political career, it’s useful to rewind a bit. In 2008, he was foreign affairs minister and one of Harper’s cabinet stars. Then came the incident with the documents left at his then girlfriend’s house and revelations that she had links to the Hells Angels. Bernier resigned his cabinet post and now says flatly that he thought his political career was over. “That was the biggest scandal in Canada for the past 15 years,” he recalls.
A few weeks later, he retreated to the Saint-Benoît-du-Lac monastery in the Eastern Townships of Quebec in a bid to escape the news, think, chat with the monks and just be alone. On the drive there, he was pulled over for speeding. The police officer asked for his licence and registration, looked them over, then handed them back. Bernier asked what was going on. “You have a lot of trouble right now,” the cop said, waving him off.
Bernier says that while at the monastery, he concluded he was in politics for the ideas and needed to fight for that. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney reached out to him, and when Bernier asked his advice, Mulroney told him to speak directly to his constituents in Beauce before the media. He did that—with journalists in attendance—and a few months later, they returned him to the House of Commons. Without any cabinet responsibilities, Bernier started a blog and spent the next four years delivering speeches on conservative values; he says his entire leadership platform is rooted in those dispatches. In 2011, Harper brought him back into cabinet as minister of state for small business and tourism. “I had to prove myself with the members of our party, with Canadians,” he says.
When Bernier entered the Conservative leadership race in April 2016—he was second into the water, after Kellie Leitch—virtually every story about him turned on his ignominious fall from cabinet, because it was the thing for which he was best known outside Quebec. Bernier joined the race as a colourful outsider in other ways, too: he’s a flamboyantly natty dresser in the grey-and-navy landscape of Parliament Hill, he displays a rascally bounce on the campaign trail and openly critiques some of the signature moves of his own former government.
Bernier says he wasn’t frustrated by policies like boutique tax credits under Harper’s leadership because they were part of the platform. “Now, what I like, I have the privilege to build a platform without any compromise, and a platform that is in line with our conservative values,” he says.
Asked how he sees this moment for his party, following a disappointing 2015 election result and the departure of the leader who literally made the party, Bernier says, “It’s a great moment to be ourselves as conservatives and to be honest with our principles.” One of his constant refrains is that it’s time for conservatives in this country to defend their principles “openly, with passion and with conviction.” The accusation that there has been a failure to do so lately is implicit. “When we buy back GM, it’s not conservative values,” he says. “When we support supply management, it’s not conservative values.”
Now, the “Mad Max” nickname—he can’t remember exactly who started it, but he knows it was unflattering—that was slapped on him during the foreign affairs debacle has been flipped on its head. Bernier says he was speaking at a University of Toronto event about the Liberal deficit students would eventually have to pay for, and someone approached him afterward saying they liked how mad he was about the issue. His campaign decided to seize on the idea, and thus Mad Max was reclaimed and reborn.
“Within the Ottawa bubble, Max truly is mad. But outside the Ottawa bubble, Max’s conservatism is a younger, more aggressive brand that appeals to the next generation of conservatives,” says Derek Fildebrandt, who was elected under the Wildrose banner in the 2015 Alberta election. “My generation of conservatives are not interested in leaders who say, ‘I believe in free enterprise, but…’ Everything after the ‘but’ is bulls–t.”
Bernier’s leadership run is what drew Fildebrandt, who is 31, back to the federal Conservative party after the 2009 auto bailout drove him away in disgust. “As an Albertan, I tend to view Ottawa as the place my money goes to die, and Maxime intends to kill less of it than anyone else,” Fildebrandt says. “Max might have a strong French accent, but he speaks Albertan.”
Tom Kmiec, Bernier’s Alberta campaign co-chair and a Calgary MP, says that backlash against Harper conservatism is a huge factor in Bernier’s success. In the hotbed of Tory support in his province, people have seen what happens when the right splits as the Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives did, Kmiec says, so they want a national leader who can keep everyone united. Like Bernier, Kmiec argues that returning to a truer shade of blue is the way to success. “If [voters] want the Liberals, they will vote for the Liberals. They won’t vote for Liberal lite, which is why our party does best when we advocate for ideas like what Max is proposing,” he says. “It’s not so much purist as it is authentic and truthful. We’re not trying to hide anything.”
Polling on issues like gun ownership or whether people should be able to pay to skip health care queues suggest to David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, that around 40 per cent of Canadians could align with Bernier’s positions. But that’s a ceiling, not a floor: to reach majority government territory, the Conservative party under Bernier would have to convert all those potential supporters, all the while hoping that people who support gun rights also oppose corporate welfare, and so on. “There probably is a path for him, but it’s a very difficult one because of how very specific his positions are and how—at least in the past 40 years—very un-Canadian [they are],” Coletto says.
Bernier has also stepped in some controversy during the leadership campaign. In March, he composed a tweet referencing a “red pill” meme that originated with the film The Matrix but has become a shrill dog whistle in misogynistic corners of the Internet. Bernier insisted the tweet—which invoked Fildebrandt’s endorsement of his candidacy—was about the movie alone. Around the same time, it emerged that Bernier had granted a one-hour phone interview to Kevin J. Johnston, a self-styled “independent” journalist given to anti-Muslim rants and violent threats. Critics say both incidents appeared to be winks and nudges to the extreme right-wing fringe of the party that some other leadership hopefuls have been courting.
Either way, when and if Bernier needs to shift to wooing the broader electorate, his greatest strength and greatest weakness are the same thing. “If you really are a believer—if you’re a movement conservative—Maxime Bernier is really the only one who you could believe has been consistently talking about these things,” Coletto says. “He has such strong policy views that will require some education, some persuasion, in terms of moving the country.”
Bernier is aware of this, and even floats the idea that his party may temporarily dip in the polls if he wins. But he believes that between the leadership vote and the next fixed election date, he’ll have ample time to make his case to Canadian voters, much as Mike Harris once did with his Common Sense Revolution in Ontario.
Right now, as animated as Bernier gets discussing his version of real conservatism, it’s a curiously bloodless conversation: there’s little sense of how the politician and his policies connect. He is aware that elections require giving voters a story to buy into, but he doesn’t appear to have sorted out what his will be.
But his amusingly absurdist vision of an election campaign in which he makes his case to voters day after day simply by barking, “Lower taxes, no special programs!” isn’t a momentary departure. It’s the way he frames his entire vision. “My slogan will be, ‘For once, vote in line with your values,’ ” he says. “All the other parties, they will promise you the paradise and I’ll be there: ‘No. We don’t have any money.’ They’ll promise you everything that you want to hear. I’m not saying that. I’m telling the truth: ‘We won’t be able to do that, here’s what we must do.’ I think that will be powerful.”
Luckily for Bernier and his party, if he wins the leadership, he’ll have time to workshop that a bit.