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Bernier slaying sacred cows in Conservative leadership race

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier speaks at the 2016 Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto, Tuesday, June 7, 2016. Conservative party leader candidate Maxime Bernier is calling for a phase-out of the Canadian broadcast regulator's role as telecom watchdog as part of his plan to deregulate the industry.

Eduardo Lima/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Maxime Bernier has kept a relatively low profile since he resigned as foreign minister in 2008 after leaving secret documents at the home of his then-girlfriend, a woman with links to biker gangs.

The maverick Conservative MP is making waves again – this time as a candidate to be the party's next leader. Pundits give Mr. Bernier scant chance of winning. The betting is on so-far-undeclared, but better-known aspirants such as Jason Kenney, Peter MacKay and Kevin O'Leary.

And yet Mr. Bernier is grabbing attention by slaying some sacred cows of national economic policy, including the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and the supply management regime in dairy and poultry.

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And he isn't done yet. Mr. Bernier has promised to drop a new policy idea every month leading up to the 2017 Conservative Party leadership vote.

In his own way, the MP from the fiercely entrepreneurial Beauce region of Quebec is laying out a distinctly free-market platform for the party – an antidote to what the Liberals and NDP are offering. "Mad Max," as he's sometimes derisively called around Ottawa, is doing it by embracing provocative ideas that most other politicians won't touch.

In a speech this week, Mr. Bernier decried the CRTC's "control freak mindset" and said the commission should be phased out as the country's telecom regulator. He also called for scrapping remaining foreign ownership restrictions in telecom and ending policies such as mandated sharing of fibre networks and managed wireless spectrum auctions.

"Competitive markets don't need government intervention to work," he said at a telecom conference in Toronto. "They only need to be free."

Last month, he advocated the dismantling of the supply management regime, which is most fiercely defended in Quebec, the country's dominant milk producer.

"It is a government cartel," he said bluntly as he announced his improbable leadership run. "It is the opposite of free markets."

It's time to have a "real debate" within the party about this "taboo" issue, he added.

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Mr. Bernier, the only current MP to disavow supply management, also took a jab at his own party for failing to live up to its free-market principles. "I think we Conservatives are not credible when we talk about principles and then defend policies that squarely contradict these principles," he said.

The Conservatives, like the Liberals and NDP, officially support the supply management system, which tightly regulates dairy, poultry, turkey and egg production in Canada.

Mr. Bernier, a lawyer and former life insurance executive, has close ties to the Montreal Economic Institute, whose free-market philosophy is similar to that of the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute. He's often identified with libertarians, who generally believe in individual rights, limited government and free markets.

It's not clear if this is all just an attention grab by an underdog in what is expected to be a crowded field of candidates. Or, perhaps it's an audition for a cabinet post in a future Conservative government.

Mr. Bernier may also want to draw his party further to the right on economic policy issues.

His views on telecom and agriculture may be outside the political mainstream in Canada, but they're far from radical relative to the rest of the developed world. Canada's dairy and telecom policies are frequent targets of criticism from key trading partners as well as the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The Conservative government's 2008 "Compete to Win" competition policy review (sometimes called the L.R. "Red" Wilson report) similarly advocated scrapping foreign ownership barriers in various industries, including telecom.

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Unfortunately, Mr. Bernier's credibility has suffered because of some his other more outlandish suggestions, including calling for a return to the gold standard and questioning whether global warming is a man-made problem.

And yet he may be onto something in his call for a more principled economic platform.

It wouldn't be without risk. Cows earn their sacred status because powerful and entrenched economic interests vigorously resist all change.

But if they choose to go there, Mad Max is laying out a policy road map for thrill-seeking Conservatives.

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