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Bernier Seems Like the Dream Conservative Candidate — So Why Does He Make Me Nervous?

Bernier Seems Like the Dream Conservative Candidate — So Why Does He Make Me Nervous?

Andrew Coyne delivers insightful, provocative commentary on political and economic issues to Canadians across the country. The former national editor of Maclean’s, and currently a nationally syndicated columnist with Postmedia, Andrew’s topical and timely presentations are sure to ignite debate and discussion with every audience. Here, Andrew writes about his reservations when it comes to Maxime Bernier:

On paper, Maxime Bernier would seem the Conservatives’ dream candidate: a free marketer from Quebec, with enough native-son appeal to win seats in his home province yet with the sort of tax-cutting, smaller-government message that can appeal to Western Canadians. Throw in good looks, passable bilingualism and a certain goofy charm and you can see why so many are so excited about his campaign. Why do I remain so hesitant?

The standard knock on Bernier is that his policies are too “extreme” to be electable. Leave aside for the moment the question of electability: are they extreme? For the most part, no. They may fairly be called “radical,” in the sense that they imply large changes in existing policy. But in the main they draw upon mainstream economic theory, longstanding proposals with impeccable expert pedigrees, or existing practice in other countries.

The notion that the federal government has the powers under the constitution to strike down interprovincial trade barriers is no more than conventional legal wisdom; that it should use those powers has often been proposed, most recently by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. The idea of converting federal transfers to the provinces into tax points is likewise hardly revolutionary: it has been discussed in one forum or another for more than thirty years.

Ending “corporate welfare” and boutique tax credits, and using the revenues to cut corporate and personal tax rates instead? Economics 101. Opening the telecoms and airline sectors to greater foreign competition? See the 2008 report of the competition policy panel headed by former BCE chairman Red Wilson, commissioned by the former Conservative government. Privatizing the post office, and ending its monopoly over first class mail? A number of other countries have done one or both, from Germany to the United Kingdom to New Zealand.

Oh, and abolishing supply management? Would anyone still pretend that a policy that doubles and triples the prices of basic food items like milk, eggs and chicken is off limits?

That such commonplaces of informed opinion are treated, within the political world, as if they were some kind of sorcery, exotic and strange, is more a comment on the vacuity of our politics than anything else: free trade was once talked about in much the same way. What is extreme, in other words, is the status quo, a backwoods of policy ignorance wilfully cut off from the best modern thinking.

I don’t want to say his policies are without fault. Some of his tax proposals — abolishing the capital gains tax, for example — fit uneasily with his declared philosophy of ending special treatment for particular kinds of investments. Scrapping the carbon tax amounts either to an abdication of any Canadian contribution to the fight against climate change, or a commitment to do so by the most expensive and intrusive means. On occasion he has pandered to the nativist side of the party, whether in opposing Motion 103 or calling for lower immigration targets.

Most seriously of all, he is a long way from explaining how he would pay for the deep tax cuts — a corporate tax rate of 10 per cent, plus two personal tax rates of 15 and 25 per cent — to which he has committed himself, beyond saying that he would not implement them until the budget was balanced.

Still, for the most part his proposals are not just acceptable but admirable: a Conservative party modeled on the lines he has advanced — limited government, pro-consumer — would be a serious party, worthy of serious consideration. What, then, are my misgivings?

One is the sheer volume of the proposals. There’s a limit to how much you can throw at people at one go; the country would seem in little mood for a revolution, a la Reagan or Thatcher. Bernier needs to make clear which of his proposals are for the long run, and which he would try to implement in his first four years in power.

Worse, his rhetorical style tends to make the “extreme” charge stick. A good politician reassures people that his proposals, radical as they may seem, are in fact the soul of moderation and good sense. Bernier, by contrast, manages to make his sound more radical than they are. Indeed, one is left at times wondering how well he himself understands them: even allowing for the language gap, when every explanation begins and ends with “more freedom,” it makes one nervous.

This admittedly stems from a broader concern. People who have worked with Bernier express persistent doubts about his judgement and depth, quite beyond the famous case of the mislaid dossier. People can change, and grow, of course, and Bernier’s leadership campaign has been, the odd hiccup aside, noticeably well run — not only sound in the broad strokes of organization and strategy, but astute in the details, the little grace notes that are the test of political talent. He offered, I thought, the best, most modulated response to Kellie Leitch’s “values” gambit, rebuffing it without sounding over-the-top. His courting of the party’s social conservatives has been likewise tactful, neither openly supportive nor hostile, but assuring them of their right to be heard, including in Parliament.

There is still nearly a month to go in the campaign. The clear front-runner, after the sudden exit of Kevin O’Leary, Bernier has ample time to seal the deal — to show he has the personal qualities to go with his bold platform: not only his trademark mix of forthrightness and geniality, but subtlety, toughness, shrewdness; the ability to persuade the unpersuaded, or to compromise where he cannot; the capacity to unify the party, but also to broaden its appeal. It will be interesting to watch his progress.

Andrew Coyne/National Post/April, 2017