Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre, and the former leader of the Reform Party of Canada.
Media and political reaction to Maxime Bernier’s decision to leave the Conservative Party of Canada and form a new party has been one of apparent surprise, and largely condemnatory. If, however, we view Mr. Bernier’s initiative in historical perspective, it appears less surprising, and may have some unexpected consequences.
What Mr. Bernier is doing has been done, at least in part, several times before: A Quebec-based politician, elected as a Member of Parliament with a federal party, disagrees vehemently with some position of that party and its leadership that he believes is particularly unattractive to a significant portion of the Quebec electorate. So he starts a new party, which muddies the federal waters for a while, then eventually disappears – but not before having some impact on who forms the next federal government.
For example, in 1944 (a year before the 1945 federal election), another Maxime – Maxime Raymond – had been a Liberal Member of Parliament since 1925. But he broke with the federal Liberals (along with two other Liberal colleagues) over the conscription issue and became the leader of a new federal party, the Bloc populaire canadien.
In the subsequent 1945 federal election, the Bloc populiare won only two seats, but it (and eight independent Liberals who also opposed conscription) took enough votes and seats away from the federal Liberals to deny them a majority government. Mackenzie King, however, was adroit enough at informal coalition building to govern as though he had a majority, and eventually most of the dissident Liberals returned (after the war) to the party fold.
Fast forward to the early 1960s: After finishing second to Robert Thompson for the leadership of the federal Social Credit Party, Réal Caouette, the Quebec-based deputy leader, broke away from the party after the 1963 federal election to become leader of the Ralliement des créditiste. In the 1965 election, that party under Mr. Caouette – presenting itself as a populist option appealing to social conservatives and Quebec nationalists – captured 360,000 votes and won nine seats, enough to deny Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson a majority. As with King, however, Pearson the diplomat was adroit enough at informal coalition management that he was able to govern until succeeded by Pierre Trudeau.
And so we come to 2018, and Mr. Bernier’s departure from the CPC to create a new party. Some observers point to an analogy between this and the creation of the Reform party 20 years ago, but the facts do not support such a comparison. Reform was not the result of a decision made by a would-be leader already in Parliament. It was created out of grassroots disillusionment in Western Canada with both traditional federal parties; numerous small meetings to discuss what to do, culminating in a “Western Assembly” in Vancouver; a wide-ranging debate at that Assembly as to whether to create a new pressure group, work within an existing party or create a new one; and finally, a vote in which more than 70 per cent of the assembly delegates voted for the new-party option.
Mr. Bernier’s initiative is analogous to other attempts to create new parties, but the most instructive are those of the Quebec-based Bloc populaire and Ralliement des créditiste, described above.
If Mr. Bernier’s platform focuses on curtailing illegal immigration and opposing what he calls “extreme multiculturalism,” he could very well do more damage to the federal Liberals in Quebec than to the CPC (which does not require many, if any, seats from Quebec to win a majority). There is also an ideological, conviction-based dimension to what Mr. Bernier represents that may extend beyond Quebec, and if it does, may further undermine support for whatever positions and parties are most supported by Canada’s political elites.
My personal preference is that the Trudeau government be replaced by a Conservative majority government under Andrew Scheer. But if the next election were to result in a minority Conservative government, its success would depend on whether Mr. Scheer, as with King and Pearson before him, could adroitly assemble and manage an informal coalition, which might even include Mr. Bernier. As the only political leader in our history who served for years as Speaker of the House before becoming party leader, Mr. Scheer certainly has the skills to perform that function, because as a successful Speaker he had to work constructively with all the members of the House, not just those of his own party.