National Column: Bernier’s ‘fighting words’ strategic

by Chantal Hebert

In body, Maxime Bernier is still – at least at the time of this writing – a member of the federal Conservative caucus. In spirit, he is already gone, in pursuit of the leadership prize that slipped through his fingers last year.

For almost two weeks, the Beauce MP has taken to Twitter to promote his views on the perils of Canada becoming more diverse, his sense that immigration levels need to be brought down and his contention that his party’s leadership is imposing its support for Canada’s supply management system in the dairy and poultry industries on muzzled Conservative members.

On Wednesday, Bernier went a step further, taking direct aim at his leader and his colleagues over the party’s announcement that it would spend part of the next year consulting Canadians on immigration.

“So, after disavowing me last week for raising the issue and telling me to shut up, my colleagues have just realized that this is something Canadians find important and want to hear about? Great example of strong leadership!” he tweeted.

Those are the kind of fighting words one rarely reads in the context of a political family discussion.

Friends and foes alike agree that Bernier still harbours leadership ambitions. He is hardly the first runner-up to do so. Loyalty to the man who beat them is not what eventually got Jean ChrÈtien, Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin to the top of their respective parties.

But none of them openly dissed their former rival so early in his tenure.

At first glance, there seems to be little to be gained from raining on an untested leader’s parade just as he is about to preside over his first national convention.

No one seriously thinks that anyone other than Andrew Scheer will lead the party in next fall’s campaign. The party is competitive enough in the polls for buyer’s remorse to be in check. Rightly or wrongly, a Conservative byelection victory at Liberal expense in Quebec last June has put to rest some of the jitters about the electoral prospects of the party under its rookie leader.

Bernier’s insistence on a more hard-nosed party approach to drawing the line on immigration and the promotion of diversity is not on the face of it inspired by recent examples at the provincial level.

On Thursday evening in Halifax, Premier Doug Ford will address the Conservative convention. Since its swearing-in, the Tory government has emerged as the most vocal provincial critic of Justin Trudeau’s handling of irregular border crossers. But Ford did not bring the Tories back to government by preying on fears of Ontario’s diversity.

Nor is it a theme that Alberta’s Jason Kenney is planning to exploit to repaint his province blue next spring.

To find method where many insiders would rather see pure political mischief, one needs to assume that Bernier is playing the long game, one that is contingent on Scheer losing the 2019 election.

Bernier has a lot of fans within the Conservative movement. But in Quebec, his notoriety has never translated into either influence or popularity – at least until now.

To wit, not only did Scheer’s decision to demote his best-known Quebec MP from his shadow cabinet in June cause few ripples in Quebec, it was punctuated less than a week later by a Conservative upset victory in Chicoutimi-Le Fjord.

But if Bernier long lacked an editorial following in his home province, he certainly has one in the wake of his Twitter spiels on multiculturalism and immigration. Last weekend, a cohort of Quebecor columnists took turns lauding his courage as they welcomed him on the anti-multiculturalism front line.

Quebec has been struggling with the issue of greater diversity versus the preservation of a core collective identity for more than a decade, with little or no notable contribution from Bernier.

At the time of the leadership campaign, he did not dive into the immigration debate. In contrast with Ontario MP Kellie Leitch, who made vetting the values of newcomers to Canada a centrepiece of her bid, Bernier mostly focused on economics.

Leitch’s gambit did not pay off. She came across as more of a Trump clone than the anti-Trudeau the party was looking for. To this day, many Conservative sympathizers feel she was the wrong messenger for the right message.

Based on his social media output to date, it is not obvious that Bernier is that much better at making a case along the same lines. But he is apparently game to audition for the part, and the operation has already expanded his modest audience in Quebec.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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