“Mad Max” Beyond Halifax

What’s behind Maxime Bernier’s Announcement?

Since Andrew Scheer secured the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), he has been forced to deal with the looming presence (and social media outbursts) of his former leadership rival, Maxime Bernier.  In recent weeks, Bernier, who won 49% of the CPC leadership, has been putting out numerous statements regarding policy on immigration and multiculturalism, to the chagrin of Scheer and most of the Conservative caucus of 97 MPs.  This includes accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of following a policy of “extreme multiculturalism” that was harmful to Canada, which garnered a great deal of attention and comment in the media and on social media. For a party that is meeting today in Halifax for its biennial policy convention and to prepare for the 2019 election, the appearance of any sort of division amongst MPs is bad timing in terms of momentum and media coverage.

This is part of a pattern for Bernier, where he continually is offside with the CPC leadership team.  In June, Bernier was stripped of his critic role as “Shadow Minister for Industry, Science and Economic Development” when portions of a book outlining his policy views on certain issues were made public, contrary to his promise to do so.  In it, he criticized Scheer for signing up “fake Conservatives” in Quebec for the leadership race in exchange for supporting supply management and the dairy industry.

This week, Bernier directly attacked Scheer and the Conservative team. Bernier accused them of weakness in leadership for first condemning his immigration views and then following his lead when they criticized the Prime Minister for calling anyone who disagreed with him as “racist.”  These direct accusations against his colleagues began to fester quickly with many MPs vowing to confront Bernier at today’s planned caucus meeting. (Unlike the Liberals and NDP, the Conservatives have adopted a rule where the power to remove an MP from caucus lies with them, not directly with the party leader.)

Today’s Actions and Reactions

Instead of travelling to Halifax to face his caucus colleagues, Bernier held a press conference earlier today in Ottawa announcing he was leaving the Conservative Party immediately and would be starting his own party “in a couple of weeks.”  He accused the CPC of being “morally and intellectually bankrupt,” stating he didn’t leave the party; the party left him.  He renewed his attacks on supply management, the party’s position on NAFTA talks with the Trump Administration, and accused the party of being little different than the Liberals.

He also restated his position on diversity and multiculturalism and asked if the party shared the same view as the Liberals who he accused of dividing Canadians and buying votes. At the same time, Bernier’s long-time friend and policy associate, Martin Masse, announced he was leaving his position with the Montreal Economic Institute to join the quest.

This sets up two possible outcomes:

  • Bernier’s departure is nothing more than an outburst by a defeated leadership candidate who remains bitter at his loss and is essentially “taking his ball and going home”; or
  • Bernier is savvier than many give him credit for and sees an opportunity to tap into growing public fatigue with political correctness. The twin pillars of fiscal conservatism and social libertarianism could present voters in Quebec with a non-separatist alternative to mainstream parties – particularly given the incendiary nature of border crossings.  The question is: could a Bernier movement break out beyond Quebec?

Electoral Realities and the Current Question on Immigration

The debate over immigration policy is real in Canada.  An August 3 poll from the Angus Reid Institute indicates that 67% of Canadians, including 56% of Liberal supporters and 55% of NDP supporters, believe the situation with border crossers is a crisis.  These views should not come as a surprise as all over the western world, views about immigration, refugees and asylum seekers are part of policy debates and positions.  Political parties who have opposed immigration or the acceptance of refugees are in positions of power or influence in many parts of Europe. And the numbers of asylum seekers crossing into Canada from the United States (and the views of President Trump) make this a real issue that parties and politicians must deal with on a daily basis.  The border crossing issue has brought attention to this issue and has caused many who have generally been accepting of immigration to question if Canada is on the right track as a country.

The federal Liberals have also not remained immune to having to deal with the issue.  In the recent Cabinet shuffle, the appointment of former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair as the minister responsible for border security was seen by some as an attempt to reduce voter concerns about the management of security and asylum seekers, especially a year out from an election.

The provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba have all struggled with an influx of border crossers and the costs to house and provide social services to them. They have formed a united front to try and obtain more funding from the federal government.

In addition, Quebec is going into a provincial election later today, to be held on October 1.  Given the attention received by the confrontation in Quebec with the Prime Minister, the fact that the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) is in first place in the polls, that Bernier is from Quebec, and that he may even campaign with the CAQ over the coming weeks, the debate will be especially relevant.  Current Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard, who has been lagging in the polls for the last few months, may see this confluence of events as an opportunity for the Liberals to try and hold onto power.

What’s Next For “Mad Max”?

Circling back to Bernier, the next few hours and days will prove interesting from a public policy standpoint. Will any caucus members, senior party officials or EDA Presidents join him in his new party? What becomes of his talented political organizers, one of whom distanced himself from Bernier earlier today?

Will he continue to issue policy and personal challenges to Scheer and the Conservatives?  And what will be the reaction of not just rank and file party members, but members of outside organizations, especially in Quebec, who might be aligned with Bernier’s views on immigration?

All eyes will be focused on Halifax this weekend as the Conservatives try to put Bernier behind them.