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When Maxime Bernier swept up to Rideau Hall with a striking brunette on his arm last August, the Prime Minister's Office rebuked him for what was deemed her inappropriate attire for a ceremony to swear in a new cabinet.

His reaction was characteristic of the fun-loving Foreign Affairs Minister who enjoys the limelight, the Quebec Conservative golden boy ridiculed all this week for a titanic foreign-policy gaffe in Afghanistan.

Julie Couillard's revealing summer-dress décolletage was not proper in the PMO's eyes, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's communications director, Sandra Buckler, called to scold: "That is not the kind of dress that Mrs. Harper would have worn to a swearing-in."

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Mr. Bernier shrugged it off, and told his staff later that the reaction that occurred to him was, "Exactly."

The well-dressed 45-year-old minister with a year-round tan didn't fuss over whether his date, or her outfit, would turn heads; he got a kick out of it. And despite the admonishment, he didn't look back.

Whether it's a touch of irreverence or a dollop of hubris, the attitude seemed to mark Mr. Bernier as a maverick in strict Tory-town. His dash appeared to put him on a path to the top of the political world.

Now, the Afghan blunder that made diplomats and Tories wince has dealt a blow to his ambitions, and likely raised his boss's anger. Inside Mr. Harper's government, his stock had already been plummeting.

"He was seen as sort of a calculated maverick, but now it seems to be more of a case of erratic behaviour," one Conservative strategist said. "It's erratic behaviour that Harper worked so hard to move the party away from, and he will not tolerate erratic behaviour."

Some Tories in government think Mr. Bernier is shaping up as the next problem-child minister, the unhappy role filled by former environment minister Rona Ambrose and then former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, who were both shuffled to less prominent portfolios.

They tell tales of the sharp stage-notes he receives from Mr. Harper in preparation for Question Period. And though Ms. Buckler's PMO communications office has prohibited him from doing all but brief news media interviews, Mr. Bernier has booked appearances on TV in defiance - a cardinal sin in the command-and-control Harper government.

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His gaffe in Kandahar, where he interfered with months of quiet diplomacy by publicly suggesting the governor should be removed, led diplomats to privately savage him. Former deputy foreign minister Peter Harder said it hurt Canada's credibility.

Mr. Bernier has spent the week being ridiculed on Quebec radio shows and caricatured as an empty suit.

Yet those who know him say he is no idiot, can absorb a complex topic and possesses a likable charm. So how has his star fallen so fast?

Many in government say his cocky self-assurance leads him not only to be a bold risk-taker but also to reject advice, and, at times, have a tin ear for the sensitivities he might offend. Combined with a consensus that he has little real interest in foreign affairs, it has proven a volatile mix.

At least one fan, Mr. Bernier's father Gilles Bernier, predicted brighter days. Likening him to the Chaudière River that runs through the Beauce riding, which rages menacingly each April only to calm once the spring runoff has passed, the elder Mr. Bernier reckons his son is just going through a rough patch.

"Maxime went to Darfur last month and that went very well. He was at the NATO summit right after and that went well, too. His trip to Afghanistan was very positive - except for his last declaration. But he'll live with it," insisted Mr. Bernier, 73. "I have full confidence he will land on his feet."

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Most who know him agree that Mr. Bernier possesses the self-confidence to recover from his blunder. But others, who see his cockiness as a flaw in politics, question whether he has the intellectual grit for his sensitive job.

"He's very casual in the way he approaches files,'' one Tory insider said. "He does not apply the rigour needed to get properly briefed. And it's not because he lacks the time."

The second of four children, Mr. Bernier grew up in Saint-Georges, where the Berniers were - and remain - a close-knit and popular clan. Gilles Bernier, a former radio announcer and bar owner, won massive victories as both a Tory MP under Brian Mulroney and as an Independent in 1993. His majorities were eclipsed only by his son's 26,000-vote landslide in 2006, the biggest in Beauce since Confederation.

Brigitte Bernier said in an interview that she always expected both of her brothers Maxime and Gilles Jr., an insurance investigator at Quebec's industry authority, would go into politics. But Maxime Bernier was not Mr. Harper's first choice. He wanted Gilles Sr., who had served as Canada's ambassador to Haiti for four years until 2001.

"I told him my baptismal certificate was too yellowed,'' Mr. Bernier recalled. "Later, he called me back and asked me if Maxime would be interested."

Maxime Bernier, who holds business and law degrees, had flirted with politics and had been touted as a candidate for the right-leaning Action Démocratique du Québec in the 2003 provincial election. But even the ADQ ultimately found the younger Mr. Bernier's ideas too hot to handle.

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As a co-founder of Montreal Economic Institute, a think tank advocating free markets, Mr. Bernier fought for a flat income tax rate that would apply to all - rich and poor alike. Initially warm to the idea, ADQ Leader Mario Dumont ultimately renounced it as an election approached.

Mr. Bernier has not shied away from Quebec nationalist colours. He was an adviser to Bernard Landry, when the latter was Parti Québécois finance minister in the late 1990s, though he has said he voted No in the 1995 sovereignty referendum. Though he went on to be vice-president of communications at the Canadian unit of Standard Life, his heart remained with the think tank.

Mr. Bernier continued to pen policy papers, notably denouncing the federal Liberal push to create a national securities regulator - an idea now embraced by Mr. Bernier's colleague, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. In 2005, Mr. Bernier moved full-time to the MEI, just in time to pilot the think tank's campaign for two-tier health care.

Those views have given him cachet with free-market libertarians in Tory ranks, who enthused about an intelligent, telegenic French-Canadian who cared about public policy. He was a high hope for a Quebec seat, and when his win was matched by nine other Tories from Quebec, he shared the credit.

Mr. Bernier did not leave his free market ideas at the door when he arrived in Ottawa and was appointed Industry Minister.

While Mr. Harper's rookie government was focused on its five priorities, Mr. Bernier carved out his own niche, revamping telecommunications policy. His big move, to open local phone markets to full competition, won accolades in Tory circles.

Still, much of the Industry Department's work involved government subsidies, and Mr. Bernier's instinct to slash it had to be tamed. "This is where rookie minister had to meet pragmatic politician," one Tory insider said.

He came to grips with that in some cases, some who worked with him insist, but he also clashed with Clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch, the powerful head of the bureaucracy who was once deputy minister at Industry and had different ideas. Mr. Harper's advisers saw him as unwilling to finesse an issue, and he got a nickname: Mad Max.

Still, Mr. Harper's August cabinet shuffle tapped Mr. Bernier for Foreign Affairs as the man to sell the controversial Afghanistan mission in Quebec.

It was a job for which he had little training or affinity. That seemed clear three months later, when he accidentally identified long-ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, rather than René Préval, as President of Haiti, a country Mr. Bernier visited only once when his father was ambassador.

"He just spoke too quickly, that's all. He knew Préval was President," countered his father. "He had visited mostly countries that were well organized. All these emerging countries, for sure, that's all new to him, going to see famine and poverty elsewhere."

It was a difficult transition in other ways, according to a Tory close to him. At Industry, he set policy on issues that moved him. At Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister sets the major policies, and the minister deals with flare-ups. His ideological interest in international affairs is promoting free markets, but that's the trade minister's job.

"He's just not interested in foreign affairs. And I think he has a pretty strong opinion of himself," said a Tory MP who likes him, but believes his pride prevented him from studying up. At meetings, according to some in government, he offers little input, although he can make a good presentation. Unlike his term at Industry, he appears to have no set of clear principles guiding him.

When he issued a conciliatory message on China, delivered to him as a fait accompli by Mr. Harper's foreign-policy adviser, Susan Cartwright, in a March 12 speech, the China hawks in the party bristled. A few days later, China's Tibet crackdown had him reversing course.

He has not found a hallmark issue, and other ministers head key cabinet committees on foreign affairs and Afghanistan.

"He does not seem to be a minister who will mark his department," said Nelson Michaud, a foreign-policy analyst at the École Nationale d'Administration Publique. "He was apparently placed in this job because he could carry a message. But even there, as we can see, the message is a little shaky."

The Kandahar mistake, Mr. Michaud believes, betrays a fundamental unfamiliarity with the basic language of diplomacy.

"A Foreign Affairs Minister has to understand that he's in another world. In my opinion, Mr. Bernier has never realized that," he said. "He should not need a briefing to say, Mr. Minister, you should not reveal all of the discussion you had with [Afghanistan President Hamid]Karzai."

Until the gaffe, Mr. Bernier's public image had never been badly dented. Now, he is a favourite opposition punching bag.

But Mr. Bernier did not issue any crawling mea-culpa in the Commons this week, and there is no sign that he's been shaken into a crisis mood. He has shown that his style is to go his own way, sometimes blithely unconcerned with the dangers.

It was perhaps emblematic that when he visited Darfur, a Sudanese region racked by bitter violence, security forces had to stop him when he tried to go out jogging.

TARMAC BLUNDER

It was a blunder that negated months of quiet campaigning by Canadian diplomats to remove Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid, who has been dogged by accusations of torture and corruption.

As he prepared to board a plane Monday after a three-day visit to Afghanistan, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier stopped to answer a few questions from reporters outside military headquarters in the southern Afghan province.

During that exchange, Mr. Bernier mentioned that he had pushed Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up corruption in his country.

When a reporter asked what could be done to further that goal, Mr. Bernier replied: "What he can do? As you know there is the question of the governor here. ... There is the question to maybe have a new governor."

It is a decision that Mr. Karzai will have to make, he said. "Is it the right person at the right place, at the right time? President Karzai will have to answer these questions as soon as possible."

The minister then left to catch his flight. But one of his staffers ran back from the tarmac to explain that Mr. Bernier had made a mistake by discussing the issue. And while the plane was in the air, the Canadian government issued a statement saying: "Canada ... is not calling for any changes to the Afghan government."

Removing the governor now becomes an extremely difficult proposition for Mr. Karzai, who continually battles accusations from opponents within Afghanistan that he is a puppet of foreign nations.

One deputy minister in Canada's Foreign Affairs Department said the "unfortunate blunder" goes to the "issue of the credibility of Canada's diplomacy.

And a senior staffer for Mr. Khalid said Mr. Bernier had overstepped himself. Afghanistan, he said, "is a sovereign nation."

Staff

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