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John Ibbitson

April 26, 2017 by Speakers' Spotlight

Before Conservatives Elect Maxime Bernier, They Should Consider This

One of Canada’s most acclaimed political journalists, John Ibbitson makes sense of government at home, south of the border, and around the world. The bestselling author of Stephen Harper: A Biography, and the co-author of the bestseller, The Big Shift, Ibbitson puts his finger on the pulse of national and international politics, and what the implications are for your business and industry. Below, John writes on the future of the Conservative Party, in the wake of Kevin O’Leary’s announcement today that he has dropped out of the leadership race:

Maxime Bernier will be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, unless the other leading candidates unite to stop him. They must decide right now.

Kevin O’Leary’s decision to drop out of the race and endorse Mr. Bernier changes the leadership game entirely. The Boston-based entrepreneur and television star was never a proper fit for the Conservative Party – apart from anything else, his inability to speak French was always a prohibitive flaw – but his popularity among party members spoke to a restless, populist desire to blow things up, to offer an angry, on-the-ground alternative to the elite, urban nostrums of Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government.

Now Mr. Bernier, a former cabinet minister under Stephen Harper who was already a front-runner according to polls, has inherited that mantle, making him the prohibitive favourite to win the leadership.

Except…

There are good reasons not to hand the mantle of Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and the keys to Stornoway, to this former Quebec cabinet minister. This is not to say Mr. Bernier does not deserve to be leader. It is to say that party members and the other candidates should ask themselves a few questions, first.

Mr. Bernier was bounced from cabinet because he left sensitive documents with a former girlfriend who, it turned out, once had ties to organized crime. Stephen Harper eventually brought him back in a junior portfolio, but never felt comfortable entrusting him with a major file, even though Mr. Bernier was a star Quebec MP and Mr. Harper was desperate to enlarge the Conservative Party’s footprint in Quebec. Does Mr. Bernier have the judgement and good sense to lead the country?

Mr. Bernier is a true libertarian, something we have not seen in a leader before at the federal level. He attacks the equalization program, in which Ottawa uses tax dollars from richer provinces to ensure a minimum level of services in poorer ones, as “a welfare trap, punishing all provinces and rewarding big government.” Does the Conservative Party want to oppose equalization?

He opposes, as well, all government subsidies to industries, such as are used to lure car companies to build auto plants, or to help keep Bombardier competitive. Does the Conservative Party want Canada to rely exclusively on the free play of market forces as an industrial strategy?

He wants to “kick the CRTC [the federal regulator] out of the telecom industry,” eliminate supply management of the dairy and poultry industries, and privatize Canada Post. Courageous, Mr. Bernier. Courageous.

Income taxes would be a flat 15 per cent between $15,001 and $100,000 and a flat 25 per cent after that. Also, he would eliminate any federal role in health care, while transferring the equivalent tax points to the provinces. There’s more, but you get the drift.

For a fiscal conservative, these are exciting policies. Maybe too exciting.

Finally, there is Mr. Bernier’s approach to immigration and multiculturalism. He would reduce the intake from the current level of 300,000 down to 250,000. He would combat “radical Islamic terrorism.” And he believes immigration policy “should not aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada, as radical proponents of multiculturalism want.” In this, he echoes fellow leadership candidate Kellie Leitch.

Now no one is in favour of radical Islamic terrorism. But many immigrant Canadians will see these moves as a dog-whistle appeal to nativist Canadians, a promise that Mr. Bernier will protect them from dangerous Muslims in particular and foreigners in general.

That message will not go down well in the immigrant-heavy urban ridings around Toronto and Vancouver where federal elections are decided.

Mr. Bernier is an exciting candidate who offers fresh, original and bold – very bold – alternatives to the conventional assumptions on how Canada should be run. The party members may well decide that he is the best choice.

But the other leading candidates – Michael Chong, Erin O’Toole, Lisa Raitt and Andrew Scheer – need to ask themselves two questions: First, is this what they want for the party? Second, who among them is best positioned to offer an alternative?

Party members will start receiving their ballots in the mail early next week. If an alternative to Mr. Bernier is to emerge, it must emerge now. As in the next few days, at the latest.

Otherwise, the leadership belongs to Maxime Bernier. Which may be a fine thing. We’ll see.

John Ibbitson/The Globe and Mail/April, 2017