In quitting the Conservative Party, Maxime Bernier has relieved party leader Andrew Scheer of one problem, while creating other, much bigger ones.
The former Conservative cabinet minister announced on Thursday that he is leaving the party to start one of his own. The decision follows a week of controversy, ignited by a series of tweets from the rogue MP on the subject of immigration. In them, he decried the federal Liberal’s “cult of diversity” and suggested too many newcomers would create “little tribes” that would, in turn, cause division across the country and erode Canada’s identity.
While some felt the Quebec MP’s remarks were spot on, others inside his party considered them intolerant at best and, at worse, borderline racist. Unquestionably, they were unhelpful and intentionally provocative, and not something a contented MP would do, knowing the sensation they would cause and the uncomfortable position in which they would put Mr. Scheer. Likely, that was the whole point. Mr. Bernier probably knew he would soon be leaving.
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The reality is, Mr. Bernier never ever accepted Mr. Scheer’s razor-thin victory over him in last year’s leadership vote, one in which the ballots were immediately destroyed, denying anyone the chance of reviewing them for irregularities. There is also the fact that for all Mr. Scheer’s good points – including an amiable, open disposition that is the exact opposite of his predecessor, Stephen Harper – he does not enjoy unfettered loyalty. He certainly never received it from Mr. Bernier.
As expected, most Conservative MPs closed ranks behind their leader, denouncing the move of their colleague as selfish and predictably unpredictable. But know there are others who are going to miss him, not simply for his quirky, charismatic personality, but also for the influence he holds inside his province. And no matter how you spin it, this is not good news for the Conservatives.
This is the first true crisis of Mr. Scheer’s leadership and how he handles it will be revealing. The hope inside Tory circles is that it will toughen him up, help gird him for what’s expected to be a nasty campaign against a formidable, battle-tested foe in Justin Trudeau. What Mr. Bernier has done is give Mr. Scheer a very public shove. Now, people are waiting to see the manner in which Mr. Scheer shoves back.
The timing isn’t helpful, less than a year from an election and with the Conservatives in a statistical tie with the Liberals in most polls. Mr. Trudeau suddenly seems vulnerable. You sense a broad swath of the public has tired of the self-righteous, morally superior tone the Liberals have set, the ceaseless displays of virtue signalling. You can hear Canadians moaning: Just give us a normal government for heaven’s sake.
The Conservatives had already established a prime target of attack in the next election – the government’s controversial carbon tax. It is the centerpiece of the Liberals’ pan-national climate change strategy, one that is slowly unravelling. Now they have settled on another: immigration.
Whether you agree or not with the manner in which Mr. Bernier expressed his feelings about the government’s current policies, the sentiment would have struck a chord with many Canadians. The Tories know this. A new poll by Angus Reid shows that for the first time in decades, a majority would like to see immigration levels decreased, not raised. Whether this marks a trend, or moment-in-time phenomenon driven by recent debate is hard to say. But it’s clearly an issue there to be exploited by a political party.
Given the Conservatives’ unhappy relationship with identity politics (see: public backlash over barbaric cultural practices initiative, call to ban hijabs, former Tory MP Kellie Leitch’s Canadian values test) fronting a policy that could call for less immigration might seem like an enormous gamble. However, the Conservatives seem aware of their reputation in this regard and are determined to avoid the political potholes it has created.
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The party’s immigration critic, Michelle Rempel, this week made a compelling and rational case for a review of the policies guiding the treatment of asylum seekers entering into the country. She says the Tories will put in place a “fair, orderly and compassionate system” that also respects the government’s ability to pay for it – something that is not the case now. Only after consulting with Canadians will the party talk about new immigration levels.
Ms. Rempel no longer has to worry about Maxime Bernier muddying the message on this file. But the Quebec MP has likely only just begun giving the Conservatives other migraines with which they’ll now be dealing for months if not longer. The Tories have most often needed a split on the left to win power in Canada. Now they have to worry about a fracture on the right.