Bernier’s de­mo­tion risks di­vid­ing the Tories

Que­bec MP re­mains pop­u­lar among mem­bers

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - John ivi­son

When you’re ahead in the polls and rais­ing twice as much money as your near­est ri­val, why would you do some­thing that is likely to up­set half of your party mem­ber­ship?

An­drew Scheer might want to ask him­self that ques­tion, af­ter strip­ping his for­mer lead­er­ship ri­val Maxime Bernier of his po­si­tion in the Con­ser­va­tive shadow cab­i­net.

The os­ten­si­ble rea­son was that Bernier had com­mit­ted to his cau­cus col­leagues not to pub­lish or pro­mote a book he was writ­ing that was crit­i­cal of the way Scheer won the lead­er­ship last year.

He sub­se­quently posted a chap­ter deal­ing with sup­ply man­age­ment on his web­site, and, ac­cord­ing to one per­son in the leader’s of­fice, “that’s where the line was drawn.”

The pas­sage that up­set the Con­ser­va­tive leader was the part, en­tirely ac­cu­rate, that claims Scheer pan­dered to dairy farm­ers in Que­bec to get their votes. Bernier wrote these “fake Con­ser­va­tives” signed up to block his can­di­dacy be­cause of his fierce op­po­si­tion to sup­ply man­age­ment, the pro­tec­tion­ist pric­ing scheme that shel­ters dairy, egg and poul­try farm­ers from for­eign com­pe­ti­tion.

The sup­port of the dairy farm­ers was “pre­cisely why (Scheer) got elected,” Bernier wrote.

He has a point. But the chap­ter con­tin­ued: “Af­ter the vote I told An­drew I would keep quiet on the is­sue — there was no point in con­tin­u­ing the fight and in do­ing so fo­ment dis­unity in the party and show dis­re­spect to the new leader.” He has not kept his word. Bernier knew ex­actly what he was do­ing when he made the chap­ter public in the first place. It was only af­ter peer pres­sure from his cau­cus col­leagues and the leader’s of­fice that he was qui­etly per­suaded to in­def­i­nitely post­pone pub­li­ca­tion.

The in­ci­dent smacked of sour grapes to mem­bers of cau­cus who wanted to con­cen­trate their fire­power on Justin Trudeau.

But the de­ci­sion this week to pub­licly hu­mil­i­ate Bernier, who won 49 per cent sup­port in the fi­nal lead­er­ship vote, is another mat­ter. This was a de­ci­sion that didn’t have to be taken — and the fact that it was sug­gests it was a only a pre­text for deal­ing with the prob­lem that is Max.

As Bernier pointed out in a tweet, the chap­ter was pub­licly avail­able for weeks. “There was noth­ing new. I didn’t ‘pub­lish’ it,” he said.

This is just the lat­est sign of a lack of ma­ture judg­ment in the op­po­si­tion leader’s of­fice.

In the few weeks since Scheer parted with his veteran chief of staff David McArthur, he has mis­judged the public mood by ac­cus­ing Trudeau of fail­ure in his ne­go­ti­a­tions with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Only mem­bers of the Con­ser­va­tive leader’s im­me­di­ate fam­ily might think he would do any bet­ter tam­ing a bull who trav­els with his own china shop.

Af­ter Trudeau said on U.S. tele­vi­sion that Canada was pre­pared to show “flex­i­bil­ity” on dairy ac­cess, Scheer said any weak­en­ing of the tar­iffs that pro­tect sup­ply man­aged sec­tor was “to­tally un­ac­cept­able.”

Bernier’s ex­pul­sion, in the wake of that state­ment, makes it looks like the cow’s tail is wag­ging the rest of the beast — that Scheer is tak­ing his or­ders directly from the peo­ple who got him elected.

Bernier would be a chal­lenge for any leader. But it is an ad­van­tage for Canada’s party of eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism to have some­one clearly ar­gu­ing the case for free trade and open mar­kets. Given he ran on the is­sue, Bernier would look a com­plete id­iot if he equiv­o­cated on it now. He could surely have been con­vinced to take the of­fend­ing chap­ter down in the in­ter­ests of party unity, as he did last time. But the knives were out. Scheer’s act­ing chief-of-staff, Marc-An­dré Le­clerc, is said to be no fan of Bernier and the ca­bal around the leader — in­clud­ing MPs Mark Strahl, Shan­non Stubbs, Pierre Poilievre and Chris Warkentin — are un­der­stood to have lost their pa­tience with the MP from the Beauce.

Yet they run the risk of split­ting the party by act­ing with such im­punity against some­one who would have been leader if as few as 66 votes in eight rid­ings had gone in his favour.

Judg­ing by the re­ac­tion on so­cial me­dia there are many Con­ser­va­tives who are up­set the party lead­er­ship is so servile to­ward an in­dus­try that rep­re­sents the cor­po­ratism and state-di­rected en­ter­prise they de­test. Nor are they im­pressed that Scheer, who made pro­tec­tion of free speech a cen­tral plank of his lead­er­ship plat­form, is now set on muz­zling Bernier’s voice on sup­ply man­age­ment.

If the party’s lead­er­ship were de­ter­mined to re­move Bernier from the front lines, it could have been done qui­etly in the dog days of July. But de­mot­ing him when the de­bate over tar­iffs in the dairy in­dus­try is at the top of the news agenda was guar­an­teed to at­tract at­ten­tion.

Maybe that was the point — to re­as­sure the dairy farm­ers, lest there by any doubt, of the Con­ser­va­tive Party’s ab­so­lute and ut­ter sub­mis­sion to the con­cept of car­tels, 300-per-cent tar­iffs and pro­duc­tion quo­tas.

The leader still has sup­port in cau­cus. Erin O’Toole, who came third in the lead­er­ship race, said Bernier has found it hard to leave the cam­paign be­hind him. “It was a poor de­ci­sion to re­lease that chap­ter, af­ter he’d told the whole team he was shelv­ing the book,” he said.

But Bernier’s ouster sug­gests an in­se­cu­rity, even an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex at the heart of the party.

Scheer had best hope that Trudeau stand­ing up to Trump doesn’t send his public ap­proval rat­ings sky­ward. If the Con­ser­va­tive leader was anx­ious when he was win­ning, how will he cope with be­ing be­hind?

JUSTIN TANG/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Con­ser­va­tive leader An­drew Scheer leaves a cau­cus meet­ing on Par­lia­ment Hill Wed­nes­day, af­ter re­mov­ing Maxime Bernier as a shadow min­is­ter.

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