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Bernier’s goal: drag the country to the right

John Bell

August 23, 2018

In the space of a few short summer weeks, Maxime Bernier has gone from grousing about how the government protects dairy farmers, to tweeting about “radical multi-culturalism”, to quitting the Conservatives in a huff. He is setting out to redraw the political map.

“The Conservative Party is too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed,” he told a press conference at which he announced the formation of a new, as yet un-named party. Given his track record, we can expect it to feature a variation of far-right anti-immigrant politics, perhaps modeled after the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Bernier stressed the importance of opposing “supply management,” using government policy to protect agricultural producers. This has been a source of conflict in the ongoing trade disputes between the Canadian government and Trump’s White House. While Bernier’s ideas about unfettered free markets appeal to “libertarians” and Ayn Rand disciples, nobody would seriously believe this sufficient to form a viable base for a national political party. But add a heaping dose of xenophobia and bigotry to the mix and it might be a different story.

Bernier & the ‘cult of diversity’

Early in August, Bernier launched epic twitter rants against “extreme diversity” that left his Conservative Party reeling. They scrambled to hide how much of their base completely agree with him.

He’s all for a wee bit of diversity, but against “more diversity” and dead set against “ever more diversity.” And don’t get him started on the “cult of diversity.” Bernier tweeted: “More diversity will not be our strength, it will destroy what has made us a great country.” This was no spur of the moment rant, but a long thread issued in both English and French. “I hereby officially declare the death of political correctness in Canada,” tweeted Bernier (in both official languages) on August 19.

Pressure grew for Tory leader Andrew Scheer to discipline Bernier, up to and including expelling him from caucus. After days of waffling, Scheer put out a bland public statement saying that Bernier held no official position, and therefore did not speak for the party. Far from stifling Bernier, Scheer’s response only emboldened him.

Not that Bernier needed egging on. He came a close second behind Scheer in the Tory leadership race to replace Harper. He is on record denying the existence of systemic racism. In May he engaged in a war of words with Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who called out Bernier’s rather obvious white privilege. He tweeted in response: “You think the world revolves around your skin colour. My goal is to bring better policies to all Canadians. That’s an MP’s job.”

Bernier has been carrying the Tory banner in Quebec since 2006. He held several cabinet posts in Harper governments. As Minister of Industry he was a privatization and deregulation enthusiast. So much so that his haste brought him into conflict with Harper’s more cautious approach. He was shuffled over to Ministry of State, where he distinguished himself by leaving a top-secret briefing book behind after a sleep-over at the home of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

He was booted to the back benches and spent the next few years rebuilding a base within the party, with an eye to replacing Harper. As he told the press: “[P]eople got to know me. They saw that I had good ideas, that I wasn't an idiot.” Bernier is nothing if not an opportunist. Adding more overtly anti-immigrant rhetoric to his repertoire gained support in the old Reform Party bastions of the west.

Much of the secret to Stephen Harper’s unite-the-right success lay in recruiting members and votes from socially conservative sections of immigrant communities—and to do that he needed to muzzle but not extinguish his racist Reform Party base. Scheer has sought to stick to that template, but lacks Harper’s authority over the party gears, in part because of Bernier’s prominence.

The difference between Bernier and his Tory caucus mates is often blurred. Scheer and the rest have spent months trying to demonize asylum seekers as a flood of “illegals” ready to storm our borders. Earlier this summer the Tories crossed the line from dog-whistle to overt racism, with a meme showing a Black man pulling a suitcase towards a broken fence, across a bridge made from a Justin Trudeau tweet. Outrage forced Scheer to remove the scummy meme from his web site. Bernier would not have backtracked.

Tory turf fight

In the wake of Bernier’s bigoted tweets (and Scheer’s milk-toast attempts to reassert his control) came news that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s popularity rebounded. A significant jump in Liberal Party memberships and donations led to rumours that Trudeau might call a snap election.

Not that the Liberals are above blowing the racist dog-whistle themselves. The appointment of former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to a newly created cabinet portfolio of “Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction” showed the Liberals trying to stake out their own piece of anti-immigrant sentiment. But next to Bernier the Liberals seem almost benign. Here was a chance to shore up their left flank, and to distract from their nationalization of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

As for the response from NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, it was slow and inadequate: “I’ve waited to respond to Maxime Bernier's comments to see if @AndrewScheer would do the responsible thing & denounce these divisive words. He has not. To everyone that belongs to a diverse community—who's been told you don’t belong—I’ve been in your shoes, I get it.”

Waiting for a Tory to do the right thing? I’d say he doesn’t get it. Maybe the NDP is more focused on winning his own seat in Parliament than in mounting a spirited fight against the rise of the racism in Canada.

Signs of panic emerged in the Tory ranks. Calgary MP Michelle Rempel went to bat for Scheer, declaring: “[Bernier] has a choice to make: does he want Andrew Scheer to win or Justin Trudeau to win?”

Bernier has chosen. He is more intent on defeating Scheer than Trudeau, at least in the short term. He tweeted his defiance: “So, after disavowing me last week for raising the issue and telling me to shut up, my colleagues have just realized that this is something Canadians find important and want to hear about? Great example of strong leadership!”

As I write, the wounded Tories are headed into their annual policy meeting. Normally I would welcome a Tory turf war, but this playing with racism can only be disastrous. Even if it ends with a rejuvenated Liberal Party, it will be one which is conceding ground to racist arguments. If you define “the right” as the Tory party, yes it cannot help but be disunited. But meanwhile the whole political terrain will have shifted to the right.

Mainstream commentators focus on Parliament—whether other Tory MPs would follow Bernier as he bellows, “Racist Avengers, assemble!” Likely they will not, dependent on Party organization and coffers for their re-election and perks. But it will be at the roots of the party, in the riding associations and among door-knocking activists, that the disruptions will come. It is not inconceivable that Bernier will be able to pull enough support to become the racist gadfly this country does not need.

A quick look at the dangerous rise of the right around the world shows that this is no time for such political games.

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