Maxime Bernier and the lessons of political loyalty - Macleans.ca

Maxime Bernier and the lessons of political loyalty

Wells: Party politics is all about taking one for the team. You don’t agree with everything. You suck it up. The tradeoff is that party harmony is a necessary condition of effectively contending for power.

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Andrew Scheer, right, is congratulated by Maxime Bernier after being elected the new leader of the federal Conservative party. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

This is not a small thing that has happened to Maxime Bernier. It’s a brutal humiliation of a major figure in a national party.

The man who led the federal Conservatives’ leadership voting last year for 12 consecutive ballots (using the party’s novel preferential voting system) before losing, narrowly, to Andrew Scheer on the 13th was writing a book about his career in politics. It was to feature Bernier’s analysis of the shaky legitimacy of Scheer’s victory (the Conservative leader had the backing of people Bernier disagrees with). It was to include the text of the victory speech Bernier planned to deliver. It was going to describe his, personal, Max Bernier’s, vision for Canada’s future.

It was going to, Bernier said last autumn, but now it won’t say any of that because there’ll be no book. This decision was announced Wednesday after the Conservatives’ weekly caucus meeting. I’m pretty sure it was made inside the meeting and announced to Bernier, but that’s only a hunch, as these things are normally confidential. But the end result is that Bernier, whose entire personal political brand is that he’s a mavericky maverick who speaks the truth and damn the consequences, finds himself muzzled. Or self-muzzling, if you want to bend over backward to give credence to a congenial fiction of political etiquette. Damned by the consequences, kind of.

Since only eight days ago Bernier released a chapter from the book, with promises of more to come, he has obviously been brought to heel. His continued maverickosity has been deemed incompatible with Scheer’s leadership. And it’s not Scheer who’s made any concession. It’s like the scene in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II where the newly-crowned King disowns Falstaff.

Last week’s Andrew Coyne column expressing astonishment that anybody could have a beef with Bernier was, we can be sure, only a prelude to the columns from Andrew and others expressing astonishment at the punishment. And there is, to be sure, something Maoist about the spectacle of a man almost literally eating his words — in service to a leader who made free speech one of the central causes of his own leadership campaign, no less. So much in politics ends up becoming a setup to its own punchline.

But instead of decrying it, let’s try to understand how such a thing could happen. I’ve thought a lot lately about the notion of loyalty in politics. It’s one of the highest virtues in the business, normally taken so completely for granted that breaches of loyalty are seen as one of the greatest political sins, by other political practitioners.

And the people likeliest to misunderstand the value of loyalty in politics are journalists, because as a rule we’re trained to assign a low value to loyalty.

Party politics is all about taking one for the team. You don’t agree with everything. You suck it up. I knew a Conservative who was upset about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, who worked hard in Stephen Harper’s government anyway. I knew a lot who thought supply management in agriculture makes no sense. Some supported Bernier last year; others supported candidates who claimed they thought supply management was great policy. Very few would have seen any inconsistency in their choices. You pick the fights you want to pick, and cede the others. I know very few Conservatives who would have preferred to leave government sooner in return for more freedom to speak while they were in power.

RELATED: Maxime Bernier’s vanity is jeopardizing Conservative Party unity

Nor is this a quirk only of Conservatives’ mentality. New Democrats are divided on the Middle East, on trade, on the utility of NATO, and most spectacularly on the merits of environmentalism versus the right of workers to hold well-paying jobs in Alberta’s oil patch and in the auto industry. They fight together as New Democrats all the same. Liberals don’t all buy into Justin Trudeau’s steady belief in constant budget deficits, and according to a recent book they seem to have had some spectacular disagreements about relations with Russia. But by and large, all of these groups fly determinedly in tight formation.

They disagree in private. They clam up in public. They smile and repeat whatever today’s line is. The tradeoff, whether explicit or assumed, is that party harmony is a necessary condition of effectively contending for power.

That’s why senior Conservatives were aghast that Bernier had written and published facts that, as colleague Coyne pointed out, are not in dispute. It’s why Liberals I know were upset at Jocelyn Coulon for writing his book criticizing the substance of Trudeau’s foreign policy. Coulon was a government staffer and had, earlier in his career, run for the Liberals. To many Liberals of long standing, that imposed an obligation on him. “I could have written a book too,” one Liberal who also left the government last year told me. But he didn’t. Because loyalty.

Just about any successful politician I’ve studied prizes loyalty far more highly than most people in ordinary life. The extreme cases are fascinating. In The Path to Power, the first volume of his monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro recounts how Johnson valued loyalty much more highly than intelligence or competence. And I mean the kind of loyalty that manifests itself as eager self-abasement:

The recruits who “made the team” — who survived the “sifting out” — were, in almost every case, men who allowed this paternalism full scope. Their distinguishing characteristic (in addition to energy and a striking capacity for hard work) was not intelligence; in decades to come, outsiders in Washington or New York who came in contact with these early “Johnson men” in business or politics, and who assumed from their rank and status a certain level of mental capacity, would be astonished by the reality. Nor was this characteristic dignity or pride; these qualities were, in fact, notably absent in most of these early Johnson men. Their distinguishing characteristic was a remarkable subservience and sycophancy…

It’s horrible, this mania for yes men. It’s lurid. But you know, the thing is, Lyndon Johnson became President of the United States.

In his memoir of his tenure as Rob Ford’s chief of staff, Mark Towhey recounts how angry he was when somebody (I’m the guilty party) wrote a column urging the embattled Toronto mayor’s staffers to quit. How would that help Toronto, Towhey asked. How would covering your hide help a larger cause. Never mind that Ford pretty spectacularly wasn’t doing a lot to earn their loyalty. The loyalty had been offered on the way in, and to Towhey’s mind it wasn’t negotiable and needn’t be reciprocated.

READ: The confidence of Andrew Scheer

When Nigel Wright, then Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, wrote a personal cheque to make the Mike Duffy problem go away (it didn’t work), no journalist in Ottawa could understand why. But no Conservative I spoke to had any trouble understanding the gesture.

A quirk of character peculiar to Harper Conservatism? Then explain why a former chief of staff to Liberal Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty who, by all accounts, would have come off as a stand-up guy to anyone who met him is now facing jail time for covering the McGuinty government’s tracks.

You do what you need to do to make sure your team wins the day. I’m not saying rules and propriety always take the hindmost. Political staffers often refuse to do something for the simple reason that it would be wrong. But when they do break the rules, often it’s for no more elaborate reason than loyalty to the team.

The other side of loyalty, as an asset assigned much higher value in politics than elsewhere in life, is that the people least likely to judge its value properly are journalists. Because in a lot of ways, we’re socialized for disloyalty.

Journalists can’t let themselves be fond, in general and over the long term, of any government’s action. We might issue grudging and conditional praise, but skepticism is prized more highly, and at any rate the current government will always eventually be replaced by another. In Quebec, whose politics has been defined for my entire lifetime by the single question of “sovereignty,” it’s considered uncouth for a journalist to become too easily identified as either sovereignist or federalist. The most exciting moments in a political reporter’s calendar are moments of spectacular disloyalty: a floor crossing, a government poaching an opposition MP, a divided caucus on a crucial vote, a tall and dapper MP writing a book that questions the legitimacy of his own leader’s leadership. My God, what a great story. Why would we not want more of those?

The conflict between journalistic perceptions of loyalty (we couldn’t find it with a map and a flashlight) and politicians’ (cardinal virtue) is often clearest when journalists go into politics. Sometimes they seem to have lost, or sacrificed, or carved out with a pen knife, some part of what used to be their soul. Other times they simply don’t grasp obvious rules of etiquette.

In Quebec this month, there’s widespread amusement over the case of my former colleague Vincent Marissal, a longtime political columnist for La Presse who’s running for the left-leaning and avowedly sovereignist Québec solidaire party. The problem is that before he joined Québec solidaire, Marissal knocked on the door of Justin Trudeau’s more centrish and avowedly quite federalist Liberal Party of Canada. Somehow this news got out. Marissal spent a few days saying, basically, ‘what’s the problem?’ before admitting that he had lied about flirting with the maple-leaf team before signing with the fleur-de-lys squad.

Marissal’s behaviour was so ridiculous it outraged even some journalists, but you can almost understand it if you remember that he was, after all, just a journalist. What? Either Trudeau’s Ottawa or QS’s Montreal would have been a gig. You want to defend the country, you want to make a new one, whatever, tomato, to-mah-to. Marissal seems to have regarded the very notion of loyalty as quaint. He is probably not done being dragged up a steep learning curve.

Journalists are normally decent judges of character. But we have a blind spot when it comes to a central feature of the political psyche. The entertaining apostasy of Maxime Bernier was fun while it lasted, but it couldn’t last. All that remains to be seen is whether Bernier’s political career can last much longer.

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