With the formation of the People’s Party, Independent Beauce MP Maxime Bernier appears to be pulling together a ragtag coalition of voters unrepresented in Canada’s political system. With his strong fundraising and national profile, it’s important to figure out both where Bernier’s movement stands in the political spectrum and how it might fare.
Outlining the Bernier Movement
Bernier is often described as a Libertarian, believing in a much smaller government and having been offered the leadership of the Libertarian Party by leader Tim Moen after Bernier’s leadership race loss. His leadership platform included an end to dairy supply management, significant deregulation of firearms, privatizing Canada Post, lowering income taxes, cutting foreign aid, and decentralizing healthcare.
These small-government policies point towards a strain of libertarianism, although unlike some who embrace freedom of movement and thus open borders as an extension of market ideology, Bernier has taken more nationalistic stances. His leadership platform called for a reduction of yearly immigration by 50,000 compared to the current government’s quota.
More recently, Bernier has criticized the Liberal government for their ostensible “extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity”. This blend of policies seems to echo those embodied by Ron Paul, the culturally conservative yet liberty-minded former Texas Congressman and three-time (twice as a Republican and once as a Libertarian) Presidential candidate.
Bernier mirrors Paul in some ways, but a Canadian parallel might be more useful for analytical purposes.
People’s Party: Reform Party Redux?
I’m tempted to call the People’s Party a Reform Party redux. Perhaps there are similarities with the “middle finger to the establishment” party formed as a vehicle for Western Canadian alienation. Bernier’s platform largely mirrors the Reform Party’s; both emphasize less intrusive and more decentralized government.
Even his logo is similar to the initial Reform Party logo. However, this more regionally based historic Reform Party contrasts with the People’s Party in that Bernier’s partisan support is balanced across the provinces, while Reform never elected many MPs outside of their base region; in 1993 46 of their 52 victories came from Western Canada.
Additionally, Bernier’s support includes 3% of Liberal supporters as well as 2% of NDP supporters, showing that his base may be more diverse than initially expected.
His party’s first notable supporters were a NDP-leaning marijuana activist, a former Conservative MP, and a Dragon’s Den investor. Moreover, the Reform Party, while also conservative on issues like immigration, was based in a more explicit evangelical appeal than the People’s Party.
So, noting these differences, will Bernier’s party find success similar to the Reform Party.
Searching for a Comparable Party
Maybe a model exists in another country. It’s difficult to find an analogous party a Western liberal democracy. Personalistic libertarian populism isn’t a common model.
Many of the right-wing European populist parties are either economically interventionist, supporting safety net programs, or more restrictionist on immigration than Bernier’s party. Thus, generating a direct comparison to a foreign party is difficult. Let’s look at some more personal, instead of partisan, comparisons.
Bernier in the Context of Canadian Populism
What the People’s Party demonstrates is that contrary to the claims of many pundits, Canada is at least somewhat fertile ground for right-wing populist leaders. Recent history attests to this appeal. Lest we forget André Arthur, the former populist independent MP from Portneuf-Jacques-Cartier, a bus driver and radio host who was later fired for controversial comments about LGBTQ communities.
Another example is Mike Harris, who won the Ontario premiership in 1995 on the “Common Sense Revolution” platform, promising lower taxes, smaller government, and more direct democracy.
Even current Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s victory showed the appeal of populism in Canada, especially in a province where the failures of Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government loomed large.
These populists failed to generate the sort of sticking power that movements like the National Front or Sweden Democrats have. Mike Harris’ platform went by the wayside within the Ontario Progressive Conservatives after he resigned in 2002, André Arthur was a lonely voice in Parliament, and the long-term impact of Doug Ford remains to be seen.
Canadian populists in recent history have ascended to leadership, but have not necessarily changed the terms of debate in this country. Notably, none of these three examples represented a party outside the “big three”. Bernier’s path appears difficult, all the more so because of his stances.
Ideology as a Barrier for Bernier
Unlike many European countries, Canada has officially enshrined multiculturalism as national policy. Maxime Bernier might disagree with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s interpretation of this policy, but Canada as a far younger country does not face the same identity debates as European countries or the United States do.
Aside from the debates over Quebec, Canadian society is less discordant than in many places. Immigrant communities have largely assimilated into Canadian society. This challenge may be a roadblock to ever winning, but there is nonetheless a segment of Canadian society that agrees with Bernier.
Challenges in Running a Party
This does not absolve him from another barrier to lasting success- running a party.
Bernier’s complaint that led him to leave the Conservative Party was excessively harsh party discipline. As he broke from party orthodoxy, Bernier found himself ostracized by leadership. Thus, Bernier’s intent with the People’s Party is to allow for a conscience-driven movement.
Bernier has pledged to allow his future MPs to introduce legislation on any topic, including abortion. I believe Bernier does a good job in highlighting the excessive amount of whipped votes in Parliament, but a party needs ideological goalposts to survive, and this is clear when we look to history.
If multiple MPs from the People’s Party won, Bernier would soon learn the necessity of party discipline. Look to the Equality Party, a short-lived Quebec Anglophone rights party in the early 1990s that elected 4 MNAs. Despite initial promise, the Equality Party died out quickly in no small part because MNAs were given too much freedom and the party became ideologically unmoored on issues other than language.
Sure, the argument could be made that the Equality Party was provincial and context-based, but in a parliamentary system, success generally depends on unity. If a budget fails, the government falls. Of course, this is the argument that major Canadian parties make in their enforcement of overly strict whip policies.
Strategic Voting as Downfall
Bernier’s ideological positioning could also negatively impact his new party because it is likely to split the right-leaning vote and jeopardize Conservative chances of winning in 2019. Conservatives may recognize this and vote strategically, a consequence of first-past-the-post voting.
We saw strategic voting in Ontario, with 42% of voters casting their ballot because they believed their choice would be best to keep another party out of government. The prevalence of strategic voting is debated, but it exists to some extent. The aforementioned Abacus poll shows that while Bernier draws from all parties, he still draws most from the Conservative Party.
Thus, Andrew Scheer is likely to adopt a message of unity and try to co-opt Maxime Bernier’s more right-leaning positions to deny him the fuel for his populist fire.
While we won’t see Scheer backing an end to supply management anytime soon, we may seem him move right on immigration and taxes. This is not without international precedent; Austria shows how a center-right party (OVP) can successfully co-opt a right populist party (FPO) to win an election.
While the People’s Party has been impressive early in terms of fundraising and attention, it remains unlikely to be a long-term political force in Canada. It’s difficult to gauge exactly where this movement will go, considering its youth, but fundamental signs do not favor Bernier.
The Reform Party might be too different to compare, individual populists don’t leave many lasting impressions, his ideology may not gain sufficient ground, and Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party will not stand still.
While anything is possible for the People’s Party, it will be a challenging road ahead.
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