By Thomas WalkomNational Affairs Columnist
Pity Andrew Scheer. The federal Conservative leader still lags Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the polls. He is having trouble in Quebec. And now Maxime Bernier’s fledgling People’s Party of Canada threatens to be a serious contender for the right-wing vote.
Bernier, 55, is not always treated seriously. Nicknamed Mad Max, the Quebec MP is too often dismissed as a showboat and a crank. His libertarian views put him on the edge of the political spectrum. As foreign affairs minister under Stephen Harper, he was best remembered for dating a woman with ties to Hells Angels.
When he left the Conservatives this year to form his own party, the conventional wisdom held that he’d simply disappear into the political wilderness.
But so far Bernier is very much alive. He spoke to an enthusiastic political rally in Vancouver on Thursday and another in Calgary Friday.
On Wednesday, he is slated to bring his hard-right message into Conservative Premier Doug Ford’s Etobicoke heartland.
Bernier says his People’s Party has signed up more than 30,000 members. He promises to field candidates in every riding for next October’s federal election and may well do so.
Certainly, he is a political force. He was inches away from defeating Scheer in the Conservative leadership contest last year and still retains support in his former party.
He has likened his People’s Party to Reform in its early years. The analogy isn’t that far off.
Like Preston Manning’s Reform, Bernier appeals to conservatives who have become disillusioned with the traditional parties of the right. They are not always consistent in their views and neither is Bernier.
As a libertarian, he would remove government from the business of business. His pet peeve is supply management in the dairy and poultry industries.
But his libertarianism would not extend to immigration. Bernier would reduce the number of immigrants allowed into Canada and require newcomers to adhere to what he calls Canadian values.
He is a critic of multiculturalism and “the cult of diversity at any cost.”
In Quebec, such views are considered mainstream. Bernier is betting that they will find a receptive audience in the rest of Canada.
He may be right. Conservative MP Kellie Leitch failed spectacularly when she tapped into anti-immigrant sentiment in an effort to win her party’s leadership. But polls indicate that such sentiment remains a strong force in Canada.
Writing in the Star after the Calgary rally, veteran journalist Gillian Steward noted that Bernier won roars of approval from the crowd when he vowed “no more political correctness.”
At the Vancouver rally, according to a YouTube video of the event, the biggest round of applause came when Bernier promised to “reform” the CBC.
In both instances, he was appealing to an inchoate sense of displacement among those who feel that Canada’s — and the media’s — preoccupation with minority rights and cultures has gone too far.
On the issue of climate change, Bernier would take a strictly hands-off approach. Trudeau’s Liberals are proceeding with their plans for a carbon tax. Scheer’s Conservatives say they would do something but won’t say what.
Bernier’s People’s Party would do nothing at all. What’s the point, he asks. Canada contributes little to global warming anyway. Why waste our time trying to meet targets we know we can’t reach in the hope of achieving emission reductions we know won’t accomplish much.
Better to cut taxes and hope that someone will eventually come up with a brilliant solution.
Besides, says Bernier, what if the scientists who forecast global doom are wrong. Most experts used to think the earth was flat, he noted in one CBC Television interview. And they turned out to be wrong.
It’s a point of view that’s too cute by half and is unlikely to propel him into power next year. Polls suggest that most Canadians take climate change seriously.
But it may give him enough votes from those suspicious of the new orthodoxies to keep Scheer’s Conservatives out of government. For Mad Max, that would be quite an achievement.
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics. Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom