Maxime Bernier is at­tempt­ing to defy po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity

The News (New Glasgow) - - OPINION - Chan­tal Hébert

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.

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