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Maxime Bernier stakes out controversial positions that challenge other Conservatives

Maxime Bernier speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 26, 2013.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Maxime Bernier is either bold or oblivious. Either way, he's the most interesting thing in the Conservative leadership race so far.

In mere months as a leadership aspirant, Mr. Bernier has proposed policies that would slash the department he once oversaw as minister, and upset 5,000 farmers in his own Beauce riding. They are, Mr. Bernier boasted in an interview, "big, bold, conservative ideas."

He's not everybody's brand of politician, not by a long shot. He's a free-market purist. He stakes out controversial positions that many conservatives believe in, but feel are too politically risky. And that makes Mr. Bernier's candidacy a test for other Conservative leadership aspirants.

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Related: What's next for the Conservative Party?

Mr. Bernier says he'd eliminate the supply-management system that keeps dairy and poultry prices high – would other candidates risk angering those farmers? He says he'd end "corporate welfare" – would others really pledge they'd never fund Bombardier or Ontario auto plants?

It's a conversation the Conservatives need. Much of their post-defeat navel-gazing has settled on the easy notion that their only problem after a decade of power under Stephen Harper was that they'd become unlikeable, appearing hard-hearted, and the answer is just a softer tone. Mr. Bernier is out to force them to talk about what they stand for.

As a leadership contender, Mr. Bernier is a long shot. He's one of five who entered the race early hoping to gain traction over time. He is best known for being booted out of his post as Mr. Harper's foreign-affairs minister in 2008 for leaving classified documents at the home of his then-girlfriend, Julie Couillard, who was already raising eyebrows because of her past relationship with individuals associated with the Hells Angels. That's the kind of thing that made some consider him oblivious. Mr. Harper brought him back into a junior cabinet role in 2011 as a minister of small business and tourism.

In his first cabinet post, in the sprawling Industry portfolio, he proposed conservative changes to liberalize sectors like telecommunications, but they were often too radical for Mr. Harper's PMO. Many of those aides, perhaps even Mr. Harper, sympathized with the purist ideas – but the PMO favoured less radical, more incremental politics.

"I had to fight against non-elected people," Mr. Bernier said of his telecom-industry proposals. "I had the support of ministers around the table."

Now, as a leadership candidate, his best chance might have been to run as the Quebec candidate. But he proposed opening up the airline industry to competition and foreign ownership, which is unpopular with Air Canada employees in Montreal, and promised to kill "corporate welfare" such as subsidies for Bombardier and other Quebec aerospace firms.

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His first leadership-campaign policy proposal was to end supply management, the regime that limits the production of dairy and poultry, making prices in Canada far higher than in the U.S. That's obvious conservative ideology, but no party has ever supported it, for fear of angering farmers, especially in Quebec. But Mr. Bernier insists he is not shooting himself in the foot.

"No, because it's popular. It's a position for the 35 million Canadians, 35 million consumers who pay almost double the price for basic products like their eggs, their chicken and their milk," he said.

His Beauce riding, he said, has more dairy farmers than any other. "But that's a cartel," he said. "They are defending their own interest, and I'm working for 95,000 Beaucerons."

His proposal to end corporate subsidies would effectively slash the Industry department, now renamed Innovation, that he once headed. He'd privatize Canada Post. It's a damn-the-torpedoes approach: he wants a free-trade agreement with China, though even many conservatives would argue China's government control of the economy makes real free trade impossible.

Only on social issues does he offer a compromising approach: he was an early Tory supporter of gay marriage and is pro-choice, but he promises social conservatives in the party he would allow free votes in Parliament on issues like abortion.

But on economic issues, Mr. Bernier's candidacy is something like a test. He essentially argues that his policies are what conservatives believe, but don't say. It's bold, he says, but not naive: "I think we will win if we stick to our principles." His bid, at least, will force other candidates to talk about theirs.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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