Just how much political damage can Maxime Bernier cause to Andrew Scheer, Leader of the Conservative Party, in the run up to the next election?
More importantly, will Bernier’s well known libertarian principles impact our national discourse, possibly shifting the debate, not only for Scheer, but for all leaders? Will “Mad Max” be a lightning rod for discontent, or simply a safety valve for malcontents?
As Bernier embarks on a series of rallies in his new role as leader of the People’s Party of Canada, commentators are divided on his potential impact.
Andrew Scheer’s victory over Bernier was dramatic as they competed for leadership of the Conservative Party. Bernier was edged out on the 13th ballot, after having led on the initial 12. Scheer won with 50.95 per cent of the vote, leaving his opponent with 49.05 per cent.
Unease between former rivals is legendary, but Bernier took that disunity to a new level when he dramatically exited the Conservatives in September.
Scheer now faces two battles. The first, with the prime minister as Trudeau pivots his sunny disposition to serious leadership, and the second, with Bernier, as the entrails of the past Conservative leadership campaign threaten Scheer’s political future.
To compound matters, Scheer appears to lack substantial gravitas. He is agile with quick and smart comebacks in the House of Commons, but so far, his leadership seems to be one of fits and starts.
In addition, the ghost of Stephen Harper roams in the background. Harper’s recent comments in defence of Donald Trump while attacking French President Macron for “disconnected elitism” only serve to remind Canadians why they voted the Conservatives out of office.
Finally, with the exception of his disagreement with a carbon tax, Scheer has yet to unveil his own policies — possibly a smart strategy given the election is months away but the empty space provides Bernier with the opportunity to present a strong vision.
So, what do we know about Maxime Bernier?
Like the prime minister, he has followed in his father’s footsteps. Gilles Bernier held the Beauce riding from 1984 until 1997 when PM Jean Chrétien appointed him as ambassador to Haiti. The Liberals held the riding until Maxime Bernier regained the seat in 2006. In other words, his roots in politics are deep and firmly planted.
He has held three different portfolios as a cabinet minister, although his tenure as foreign minister under Stephen Harper was marred by his irresponsible care for cabinet documents (leading to his resignation). But Bernier understands the levers of government, which Scheer, even though he was the youngest speaker of the House of Commons, does not.
Bernier’s website echoes his past as it refers to his platform as a Conservative leadership candidate, but he clearly envisions a future. Members can sign up for five years.
Straying far from his contempt for the policy of supply management and corporate subsidies, Bernier has also heightened the rhetoric on sensitive social issues. He states that immigration levels must decline and that immigrants must adapt to Canadian values.
Rather than being a climate denier, he is a climate dismisser.
He takes aim at iconic Canadian institutions, such as the CBC and Radio Canada.
However, he too, faces obstacles. There is no way he can field, let alone find, 308 serious and vetted candidates for the next election. There is no way he will be able to equal the fundraising efforts of the main stream parties. There is no way he can mount a disciplined, national “get out the vote” organization.
Bernier will no doubt use every new social media tool and smart app, but “boots on the ground” require commitment — not hype.
Scheer’s main advantage is a massive party machine and an experienced caucus, which he is attempting to fire up by noting that “The Liberals are going to throw everything they have at us. It’s going to get worse. It’s going to get nasty.”
Sorry, Mr. Scheer, It’s not only the Liberals that will be throwing everything at you. Stand by for Round Two of the 2017 Conservative leadership contest, which will take place in October 2019.
This time all Canadians will have a vote.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @penottawa