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Andrew Coyne suggests People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier be allowed to take part in the leader's debate. As a first rule when dealing with people who believe powerful people are meeting in secret to conspire against them, it is best if powerful people do not meet in secret to conspire against them.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

There are two weeks to go until the election, but already it’s possible to declare a winner. Not the Liberals, who are down about six points in the polls since the start of the campaign. Not the Tories, whose gains to date are only enough to bring them back to where they were in 2019. The NDP have mostly gone sideways, the Bloc has slipped a little, while the Greens have lost a third of their support.

No, the early winner is the People’s Party of Canada, otherwise known as the Max Bernier Experience. At roughly 5 per cent (some polls have them as high as eight), support for the Peeps is half again as high as it was at the start of the campaign, and three times what it was in the last election. They are now clearly ahead of the Greens, and within striking distance of the Bloc.

This is an appalling development. Mr. Bernier has run a toxic campaign, full of fear-mongering, inflammatory rhetoric (“when tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our duty”) and name-calling – he has called the Liberal Leader, in particular, a “fascist psychopath” – aimed mostly at the small minority of Canadians who are “anti-vaxxers.”

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That is, they believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the COVID-19 vaccine poses significant risks to life or health; or at any rate, that to require evidence of vaccination as a condition of entry to social and occupational gatherings is an assault on liberty worthy of a dictatorship. Those are Mr. Bernier’s supporters disrupting the Liberal Leader’s rallies, unhinged mobs spitting venom and, increasingly, threatening violence.

It is sad to to see Mr. Bernier, who just four years ago came within a few votes of winning the Conservative Party leadership, going down the same rabbit-hole as so many on the right have in recent years: a mix of nativism, conspiracy theory and a childish delight in giving offence for offence’s sake, a.k.a. “owning the libs.”

Mr. Bernier’s reputation as a gadfly was once earned not by pandering to crypto-racists and fringe kooks, but by his willingness to say the sorts of things that are trite among economists but utterly alien to the world of politics: on supply management, on business subsidies, on the many ways in which current policy exploits the taxpayer and despoils the consumer.

His departure for loonier pastures, coupled with Erin O’Toole’s puréeing of Conservative Party policy into a platform any Liberal could love, leaves limited-government conservatives without a home. Worse, he has provided a voice and a vehicle for a movement that is defined mostly by its willingness to believe almost literally anything. As we have discovered of late, that describes a disturbingly large part of the population.

How should the wider community react to this phenomenon? As a first step, when dealing with people who believe powerful people are meeting in secret to conspire against them, it is generally best if powerful people do not meet in secret to conspire against them. Which brings us to the federal Leaders’ Debates Commission.

Present at this week’s two official debates will be the leader of the Green Party, which now has barely half the PPC’s support, and the leader of the Bloc Québécois, which has roughly comparable support and does not even pretend to be a national party. They were invited. The PPC leader was not.

This travesty of the democratic process is a result of the commission’s ruling to reserve participation to the leaders of parties with at least one MP, or who won at least 4 per cent of the vote in the last election, or – crucial to the PPC’s hopes – had at least 4 per cent support in the polls five days after the election was called.

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Why 4 per cent? Why five days? A line has to be drawn somewhere, but the reasoning behind the line-drawing should be transparent and fair. In this case, it seems to have been drawn to no other purpose but to keep the Peeps out.

If this were some private gathering, so be it. But this is an official, state-sanctioned debate, the single most important event in the campaign. It is not up to some faceless commissioner to decide who should be eligible to participate. It is up to the voters.

As a practical matter, not every leader of every party, no matter how marginal, can participate, else the debates descend into chaos. But there are now six parties that have broken clear of the pack; no other party has even a significant fraction of their support. All that Mr. Bernier’s exclusion will do is to feed his supporters’ suspicions that the fix is in, not least since for once they will be right.

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