It's not hard to pick the comeback player of the year in Canadian politics.
He's that guy with the sunny smile and big principles who, after the Bikergate scandal, was written off as dead and cemented.
Maxime Bernier has staged an impressive political revival and he has done so in a most unusual way. He bears the distinction of being one of only a handful of Conservatives over the past several years who has proven himself both daring and democratic enough to speak his mind.
Mad Max, as he is sometimes called, chose not to march with the party's troupe of trained seals. We recall what happened to other Tories who were so venturesome: Garth Turner spoke out and was sent to Alcatraz; Rick Hillier, who talked out of turn a couple of times, fell from favour; Mark Warner, a Toronto federal electoral candidate, was dumped after getting too noisy about social issues. And there were others.
Mr. Bernier probably figured he had nothing more to lose after resigning as foreign minister for having left secret documents at his bodacious girlfriend's pad in Montreal. And so, out has come his libertarian manifesto. He's a small-government purist who wants fiscal powers transferred to the provinces, a freeze on public spending, an erasing of the deficit and the national debt, a big scaling-back of the welfare state.
His message cannot be comforting to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It is reminder to the party base that the government's big-spending ways are not in keeping with true conservative objectives. But Max's musings have hardly drawn a peep of complaint from Mr. Harper's PMO. In that he is such a breath of fresh air, he is now talked about as a potential leadership candidate. Everybody likes a Lazarus.
Why Mr. Harper is letting him spout off is puzzling. Perhaps he reasons it would be too difficult to stop him. If he tried to expel him from the caucus, as in the case of Helena Guergis, he could face a backlash in Quebec, where Mr. Bernier enjoys considerable popularity. Or perhaps, in response to the constant drumbeat of criticism over his authoritarian style, the Prime Minister has decided to loosen the reins.
Gerry Nicholls, who worked with Mr. Harper when he was president of the National Citizens Coalition, said Monday that Mr. Bernier's conservative values are actually very close to the Prime Minister's.
"Bernier sounds like the Harper who was at the NCC," said Mr. Nicholls, who has just returned from a stint working for a Republican Senate candidate in New Hampshire. He said he's relieved to see Mr. Bernier being given voice. "My concern has been that the Harper government, in its zeal to control messaging, is also seeking to blunt legitimate conservative criticism and intimidate those who would deliver such criticism. Prime Minister Harper may run our country and he may run the Conservative Party, but he does not and should not run the conservative movement."
Mr. Bernier is too much of a small-tent conservative to get far with his preachings. He should realize that the PM's compromises are driven more by political necessity than any desire to go soft. The Quebecker's English is faulty and he will face tough competition from party starboarders like Jason Kenney. But he does have charisma and simple messaging that supporters hope can be channelled into a Ronald Reagan-styled appeal.
The question now is whether he will induce more Conservatives to speak their minds. To counter him, moderate party voices must be heard from. One of the critical struggles of Canadian politics will be in determining who controls the Conservative Party of the future - traditional Tories or the bare-knucklers. Red Tories have been chafing under this government for several years but few have had the courage to come forward. This may be understandable for regular MPs, but certainly not for those in the Senate, whose job security is guaranteed.
Perhaps Mr. Bernier's breakthrough will embolden them. If he can speak out, why can't they?