The Conservative Party of Canada is poised to elect a new leader. This decision will change Canada’s public policy landscape and affect Canadians across the political spectrum.
There is a very good chance that Quebec MP and former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier will be the new leader of the party when the race concludes on May 27. He holds a commanding lead in polls of Quebec and Alberta Conservatives, and according to CBC’s Leadership Index (as of May 3) he leads in all provinces except Saskatchewan. The rules of the race give a predetermined number of points (100) to each riding, which will provide a degree of balanced representation of all regions in the country. Quebec has 7,800 points — 46 percent of the 16,901 needed to win — but only 7,411 party members, an average of 95 members per riding. Ontario has more ridings and more members, but because the number of members per riding is higher (an average of 470), each Quebec member’s vote carries far more weight. That makes the province the most fertile ground for candidates seeking support.
Two wild cards have turned up that could upset any prediction. Reports indicate that a significant number of ballots have undergone scrutiny during counting because of apparent mistakes by the voters, and that membership numbers are significantly higher than originally estimated. If these factors affect one candidate more than the others, an upset is hypothetically possible. However, Canadians should prepare for the probability of a Bernier Conservative Party.
In Bernier’s own words, he is both a “reasonable libertarian” and “Mad Max.” These characterizations present an important question for Canadians to consider: How does Bernier’s dichotomy between reasonableness and madness play out in public policy? His record suggests inconsistency.
On abortion, he recently told the Canadian Press: “If you ask me if I am a pro-choice guy or a pro-life guy, it will depend on that bill.” However, in 2010 and again in 2012, he was pro-choice and voted against MP Rod Bruinooge’s abortion legislation and MP Stephen Woodworth’s abortion motion. One could think he is socially progressive on the basis of those two votes, but his latest statement undermines his own history. This is indicative of political opportunism, not principled policy.
On the rights of LGBT Canadians, his record shows even less principle. In 2013, he voted against protecting transgender Canadians after skipping out on an earlier vote. In 2016, he voted for transgender rights and marched in Toronto’s Pride Parade. But recently he flip-flopped back and expressed “regret” for voting to protect this group of Canadians. Even if Conservatives accept that Bernier talks the talk on individual liberty and freedom, he does not walk the walk. Bernier considers that freedom from discrimination for LGBT Canadians should take second place to the freedom of speech of their homophobic opponents.
Even on fiscal policy, Bernier has two different stories. While he served as industry minister, he oversaw financial bailouts for Canadian corporations in financial difficulty. Now, as a leadership candidate, Bernier rails against corporate welfare and claims his previous support was “not in line with my values.” If that was the case, he could have stepped aside and left his cabinet post, but he chose to execute the policy.
In addition to his record, Canadians need to consider his proposals for the future. Bernier’s platform contains several ideas for Canada that will fundamentally change the political landscape. Most Canadians care deeply about health care. Bernier wants to cut the federal government out of the health care business, leaving it to the whims of provincial governments. This move will undermine any national standard of care, instead causing disparities in health care delivery from province to province.
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Bernier’s campaign says he will consider a reduction in Canada’s contribution to foreign aid. Reducing foreign aid in favour of domestic projects may seem sensible to a particular segment of the Conservative Party, but it comes at a serious price. Cutting foreign aid contributes to instability and failed states, which in turn lead to international crises. These crises become far more expensive than foreign aid when we have no choice but to call on our soldiers to restore stability.
Bernier has also proposed massive tax cuts, including a flat tax; he promises to reduce corporate taxes by 33 percent. This plan, coupled with his commitment to balance the budget in two years, means he will have to make dramatic cuts across government. He will need to target National Defence and other programs cherished by conservatives to achieve his tax cuts and balance the budget.
There are many serious policy issues facing Canada today. A conservative response is needed if we are to have a thorough public debate about them. Canada has a $123-billion infrastructure deficit; in Bernier’s slash-and-burn rhetoric on spending and his tax-cut plans, where can we find a conservative way to handle this critical issue? With the military chronically underfunded in key areas, including procurement and training, Canada needs a conservative answer that balances targeted and effective spending with an efficient review of defence policy.
In the public policy arena, which Bernier will show up, the “reasonable” conservative or the “mad” Maxime? If Bernier decides to focus on his pet issues instead of tackling the big ones, his leadership will compound Canada’s existing policy problems and cause significant damage that will not easily be reversed.
If the Conservatives select Bernier to lead them, he will have an extremely difficult task ahead of him. He will need to bridge the vast divides between some of his ideological positions and established conservative principles. Behind closed doors, and away from the media, will he use his “reasonable” side to accomplish this feat, or will he expect conservatives to toe his new party line? At the end of the day, many party loyalists will follow him come hell or high water, and that could put him very close to moving into 24 Sussex. For most of Canada and many small-c conservatives, it is time to pay attention to what the reasonable and mad Maxime Bernier could mean for us all.
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