Maxime Bernier is attempting to defy political reality
If sober minds prevail, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will refrain from uncorking the champagne just yet over Maxime Bernier’s bid to create a competing conservative party.
The notion that the Beauce MP is about to pave the way to four more Liberal years in power by splitting the conservative vote in next year’s election presumes Bernier will succeed where the likes of Preston Manning, among others, initially failed.
If recent Canadian history teaches anything, it is that setting up a national breakaway party and leading it to a position of significant electoral influence is easier said than done.
It has yet to be achieved in less than a single year.
Take the Reform Party.
It has gone down in history for its transformative impact on the conservative movement, as well as for having contributed mightily to keeping the federal Liberals in power for the Jean Chrétien decade.
But lost in the legend are the arduous beginnings of Manning’s political creation. The Reform Party’s initial appearance on the federal ballot in 1988 ended with a whimper, not a bang. It barely won two per cent of the vote. The party did not elect a single MP, nor did its appearance on the landscape hinder Brian Mulroney’s Tories in their quest for a second majority term.
Manning’s big break did come five years later. But he had a lot of outside help.
By 1993, the ruling Tories had sunk in the polls under the combined weight of divisive constitutional failures and the unpopular introduction of the GST. And the Bloc Québécois was around to crush the party in Quebec.
By comparison, Bernier is a wannabe polarizing figure in search of a lightning rod to justify a schism.
In essence, in the next election he will be asking his prospective followers to trade a possible Conservative comeback under Andrew Scheer for an uncertain crossing of the desert under his leadership. The last such adventure saw the Canadian Right wander in the opposition wilderness for 13 years.
Bernier is no Manning, and certainly no Lucien Bouchard. Every comparison has its limits but if anything, he is to Quebec’s federal Conservatives what Stéphane Dion used to be to the province’s Liberals: a politician with negative traction on his home ground.
Like Dion, Bernier’s defining feature has been a willingness to swim against the mainstream current. But while that has stood him in good stead in some out-ofprovince conservative quarters, it has been remarkably ineffective at turning the tide on any of the issues that are close to his heart in Quebec.
His unrelenting campaign for the elimination of protectionist agricultural policies, and his call for Bombardier to sink or swim on its own devices have made him persona non grata among his province’s political class, as well as within the Quebec ranks of his former caucus.
He is also a latecomer to the diversity-versus-identity discussion. That Quebec train left the station without him a long time ago.
Quebec is currently the scene of a campaign that could for the first time in decades see a new party come to power.
But Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault spent the past seven years getting to where he is today, and he had the foundation of the defunct Action démocratique du Québec to build on.
In a Radio-Canada interview on Friday, Bernier drew a parallel between his own project and French President Emmanuel Macron’s success at breaking the mould of his country’s party politics in little more than a year.
It is easy to see the attraction of a presidential system for a political loner such as Bernier.
But that does not make Macron’s experience readily adaptable to Canada’s parliamentary democracy. There is also a dearth of evidence to support Bernier’s contention that his policies are attractive to a silent plurality of voters.
If he is serious about creating a new conservative party, he has to know that he is almost certainly in for a longer haul than if he had bided his time and waited for another Conservative leadership opening.
It is not a given that he has the stamina to see his project through. It is harder to line up electoral ducks than those involved in winning a leadership campaign and, if his failed bid for the CPC prize (including the loss of his Beauce riding to an out-of-province rival) revealed anything, it is that Bernier has a short organizational attention span.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.