Absent Monday’s federal byelection in the Quebec riding of Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer might not have so expeditiously booted his former rival Maxime Bernier from his shadow cabinet. Still it was probably only a matter of time before last year’s leadership runner-up found himself out in the cold.
On Tuesday, Bernier lost his role as official opposition innovation critic over what caucus insiders characterize as a breach of his promise to desist from publicly challenging party policy by pursuing the elimination of Canada’s supply management system.
Bernier is said to have broken his word by uploading to his personal website the supply management chapter of a future book on his political vision, and by staying out of the House of Commons rather than showing unanimous support for a motion of support for the Liberal government in the nascent tariff battle with the Trump administration.
The chapter was contentious not because it reiterates Bernier’s longstanding opposition to the system that shelters Canada’s poultry and dairy industries from foreign competition but because it asserts that Scheer owes his leadership position to “fake” Conservative members drawn from the ranks of the Quebec dairy lobby.
After its initial publication embarrassed Scheer earlier this spring, Bernier said he was putting the book project on ice. But the contentious chapter resurfaced on his website in the immediate aftermath of the imposition by the Trump administration of tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. The White House has since framed those actions as measures designed to put pressure on Canada to abandon its protectionist dairy policies.
Bernier’s timing could not have been worse.
He may have believed the American tariffs offered him an opportunity to advance his contention that larger Canadian interests are being sacrificed on the altar of the sacred cow of the supply management system.
But in the current deteriorating Canada/U.S. climate, using Trump’s bullying moves to validate his point could not but amount to a poor way to win more voters to his argument.
Whatever the intention, it also looked like a shot across the Conservative bow in the imminent Chicoutimi-Le Fjord byelection.
Scheer has high hopes for Monday’s vote. Party strategists see the byelection as a dry run for next year’s general campaign in Quebec.
A four-way split in the vote allowed the Liberals to narrowly win the seat from the NDP in 2015. But since then New Democrat and BQ fortunes have declined precipitously. In a oneon-one battle with the Liberals in Quebec, the Conservatives believe they can deprive Trudeau of gains in his home province next year and in the process deny him a second term in government.
In the lead-up to the byelection, the Conservative party has consistently played up Scheer’s pro-supply management credentials. It must have struck a Liberal nerve, for Trudeau ended up stopping in the riding on the way to the G7 just to reassert his own determination to defend the system against all comers at the NAFTA table.
With less than a week to go to the byelection, a local poll published on Wednesday showed the Conservatives with a strong lead on the Liberals. Under that light, Bernier’s decision to once again highlight his dissent could only too easily be construed by many of his caucus colleagues as a deliberate act of sabotage.
Second only to the ministerial obligation to cabinet solidarity is that of official opposition critics to their party’s core policies.
Support for supply management is as intrinsic to Scheer’s leadership as the Conservative opposition to carbon pricing. Like it or not the ship on both policies sailed at the time of last year’s CPC vote.
No one should necessarily count on many of Bernier’s colleagues to intercede in his favour.
He is as popular within the libertarian ranks of the party as he is unpopular among his Quebec colleagues. They would be happy enough to see the last of him in the House of Commons.
If, as all those who know him assume, Bernier still harbours national leadership ambitions, he should probably grant his caucus critics their wish by stealing a page from the handbooks of John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper and waiting for the next leadership opportunity from outside Parliament.