Categories: AnalysisCanadian NewsPolitics

The Conservative Schism: will it split the vote?

With Maxime Bernier announcing his departure from the Conservative Party of Canada after a disagreement with party leader Andrew Scheer, some worry and others hope that it may be to the benefit of the left. Since 2003, the CPC has had the luxury of being Canada’s only major right-wing political party. If Bernier is able to create a legitimate party and establish it as a contender by the 2019 election, his support could be at the expense of Scheer’s Conservatives.

On Bernier’s website, he has posted a long explanation as to why he has decided to break away from the CPC and start his own political party. In his statement, the Quebec MP says that he believes that the current Conservative leadership has allowed the party to abandon its true conservative values. He also took a swing at Scheer’s leadership by accusing the CPC for agreeing with a number of policies the Trudeau-Liberals have put forward, including the retaliatory tariffs on the United States.

Probably the biggest wedges that drove Bernier to make an exit from the CPC on the week leading up to the Party’s annual convention are his stance on multiculturalism and our illegal immigration crisis, and because he broke faith with the Conservative Party by posting a controversial chapter of his book online. On August 12th, Bernier posted a series of tweets slamming Prime Minister Trudeau on his government’s “radical multiculturalism”. Over the 2015 election campaign and continuing into his government, Justin Trudeau has championed an idea that diversity is Canada’s greatest strength as a nation. Some may remember his slogan, “Diversity is our Strength.” However, Maxime Bernier believes otherwise.

“Trudeau’s extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity will divide us into little tribes that have less and less in common, apart from their dependence on government in Ottawa. These tribes become political clienteles to be bought with taxpayers (money) and special privileges.”

In his statement posted on his website, the independent MP echoed similar feelings.

“This is another crucial debate for the future of our country. Do we want to emphasize our ethnic and religious differences, and exploit them to buy votes, as the Liberals are doing? Or emphasize what unites us and the values that can guarantee social cohesion?”

“Just like in other Western societies grappling with this issue, a large number of Canadians, and certainly the vast majority of Conservatives, are worried that we are heading in the wrong direction. But it’s not politically correct to raise such questions,” says Bernier.

These feelings are not unique to Maxime Bernier. Across the country, people have been criticizing the Prime Minister’s take on multiculturalism. In Trudeau’s mind, there is no bad outcome of anyone coming into the country and it seems like he ignores the negative factors involved with illegal immigration. Even the phrase “illegal immigrant” is too intolerant for the Prime Minister, who prefers to use “irregular border crosser” in its place. Conservative MPs, including both Bernier and Scheer, have accused Trudeau for the illegal immigration problem in the first place, and are constantly accusing his government of not having a plan of action.

So when Bernier openly states that the Conservative Party leadership is worried about playing the Liberal’s political correctness game, and that Andrew Scheer publicly distances the Party from him, people can’t really be surprised that a legislative veteran who narrowly lost a leadership race and has his own supporters would decide to go for it on his own. Andrew Scheer distanced the CPC from Bernier by saying “Mr. Bernier does not hold a position in our caucus. He’s not a shadow minister. He’s not the spokesperson on any issue, so it’s clear that when he expresses those types of comments that he’s speaking for himself.” The Tory leader also added that Bernier is “an individual member of Parliament. He doesn’t speak for the party”. Those are pretty marginalizing statements; especially coming from the person Bernier lost the leadership of the party to.

And for Maxime Bernier, that is a big factor in this controversy. Ever since Andrew Scheer was named Stephen Harper’s full-time successor, beating Bernier in the process by 1.9 percent, the now-independent MP has hinted that he questions the legitimacy of Scheer’s election. After the leadership race, Bernier promised to the Conservative caucus that he would shelve his libertarian feelings on Canada’s supply management system and tow the party line on the matter, since the leader was in favour of the system.

However, at the beginning of the summer Andrew Scheer announced that Maxime Bernier would be removed from the shadow cabinet of the Official Opposition. An unnamed Conservative MP leaked that the true reason for the Party’s decision is a reaction to Bernier posting a chapter of his book online. The chapter, which is about supply management entirely, flies directly in the face of the Conservative Party and his promise he made to his fellow caucus members.

Bernier’s chapter does make a great libertarian argument against Pierre Trudeau’s supply management system, whether Conservatives want to acknowledge it or not. He explains that the system was created to counteract the impact of newer, more efficient agricultural technology. Conflict between farmers and processors arose, which resulted in price instability and wage uncertainty for the farmers. But Mad Max does not think that is not necessarily a bad thing, and cites how it is normal for countries to go through periods of overproduction and price instability.

The chapter also discusses the financial impact supply management has on the consumer. Bernier quotes a study that concluded supply management is taking money from people due to artificially higher prices. He explains that supply management is based on the three pillars of control over production, governmental fixing of prices, and import control. These three pillars result in Canadians having to pay more for butter as to ensure the Canadian farmer doesn’t have to compete with the cheaper American products, for example.

In addition to attacking supply management, Bernier used the chapter to clarify something that caused him a lot of grief when he was vying for Scheer’s job. During the Conservative leadership race Bernier repeatedly called the system a cartel, and faced a lot of push-back online and by his leadership opponents. In his chapter, he states that he was using the Competition Bureau of Canada’s definition of a cartel, which defines it as harming “other businesses and consumers by artificially raising prices, restricting choice, or reducing product quality or service.” The Bureau also lists cartels as illegal, with a punishment of a fine up to $25 million and/or up to 14 years imprisonment. Bernier clarifies that it is this systemic definition that he was referring to, not the individual definition people automatically assume due to the word’s association with drug cartels.

Bernier also questions why any party in Canada is in favour of the supply management system. Free market libertarians or conservatives should be opposed to it because it is government intervention in the economy. But Canada’s more “progressive” parties, like the New Democrats or Liberals, should also oppose the system. Bernier states that farmers who benefit from supply management are wealthier than the average family, and shouldn’t be benefiting from a redistribution program. He says that after taxes, the average household brings in about $70,000 compared to dairy and poultry farmers who make around $150,000 and $180,000 respectively. Bernier questions how political parties that claim to be looking out for the lower and middle classes’ best interests can support a system that is redistributing wealth from those classes to wealthier Canadians through artificially high prices. His criticisms of the right and left politicians’ ride-or-die support of supply management are very reasonable and are addressing hypocrisy in politics, which is a good thing – again, whether Conservatives want to agree or not.

The chapter that the Conservatives were upset about also criticizes the effectiveness of the system. Bernier quotes statistics that represent a decrease in the number of farmers in Canada over the period of supply management. In 1971, there were 113,008 dairy farms and only 10,951 in 2017. He is simply questioning the legitimacy of a program that has witnessed 90% of dairy farmers close up shop, and that makes it extremely expensive to become a dairy farmer. Bernier says that before a new farmer has even purchased any cows, they must spend millions of dollars just to be permitted to do so. When the system began in the 70’s, the government gave out these quotas for free. So if a farmer has free quotas, or has paid off the loans they took out to get into the business, they would have an asset worth millions of dollars. For some, it is very hard to resist retirement after working such a demanding job.

While the CPC was upset that Bernier posted a chapter that revolved around a topic that the Party officially supports and has asked the outspoken MP to keep it down about supply management, that is not the only reason why Scheer removed him from the shadow cabinet. The Party took offense to his claim that Scheer won the leadership due to fake conservatives who only joined the Party to vote for a candidate that would protect the system. They viewed the claim as Bernier bringing the legitimacy of Andrew Scheer’s victory into question. The Conservatives think that is an offensive attack on their supporters, and did not want to have someone with opinions like that of their supporters in a leadership role.

When it comes down to it, one can’t really blame Scheer or Bernier for the recent turn of events. Scheer’s decision to pull Bernier from the party’s front bench in the House in reaction to calling their supporters fake conservatives is perfectly valid, and a smart leadership call in a party that is in the process of reunifying within itself. But Bernier’s ultimate decision to leave after repeatedly being told that his opinions are not that of the Conservative Party of Canada isn’t irrational or out of nowhere. Bernier is a passionate politician, who cares about sticking to his free market conservatism values. When the man who beat him by less than two percent in the 13th round of a ranked ballot is the one marginalizing Bernier, it was only a matter of time before he fractured from the Party. The Conservatives can only be grateful that it happened now, and not closer to the election. Bernier is a prominent Member of Parliament, with conservative support across the country. At least now they can develop a game plan for their campaign that includes a Mad Max Club.

Liberal and New Democrat supporters have been thrilled that their biggest opponent has lost one of its more important MPs who could potentially split the right-wing vote in Canada in 2019. Conservative voters across Canada are either mad at Bernier for leaving so abruptly or they are conflicted on who they would vote for, stirring up the worry of splitting the vote. There are two things that need to be said about this; the first is that there is no guarantee that Bernier will receive enough funding from Elections Canada to be able to run a full slate of 338 candidates. While it is likely that he will have enough support for Elections Canada to deem his party eligible for party status, voter have to wait and see.

Even if Bernier is able to receive the funding necessary to run 338 candidates, it doesn’t automatically mean that Canada’s right-wing voters will always lose at the polls. They would now have the opportunity to vote for a coalition government between the CPC and Bernier’s party. Canadians tend to have a bad image of coalition governments, but that is only because Canadian parties have used them as a way to block another party’s minority government rather than to work together for the good of the country. But considering that Bernier was able to get to within 2 percent of winning the leadership race, his party will most likely not stray too far from the already established Conservative Party.

Bernier’s website still has his leadership campaign promises to Conservative voters. It includes things such as bringing an end to Canada’s provincial equalization program, ending corporate welfare, scrapping the carbon tax, creating an immigration policy that fulfills Canada’s economic needs, improving our border, and decreasing the size of government all around. If there was anywhere to get an idea of what a right-wing party under Bernier would be like, it would be here. Based on the promises on his website and his outspoken take on the supply management system and Trudeau’s immigration policies, it is safe to say that Bernier’s party will be a more free market conservative one with stricter immigration policy.

When Canadian’s hear stricter immigration policy, they are quick to jump to the conclusion of closed borders. It doesn’t help that the Liberals and NDP push that image on voters come election season. If Bernier’s party promises a border that is too strict for voters to be comfortable with but they still appreciate Bernier’s libertarian, free market conservative take on government, they could vote in a way that would create a CPC-Bernier coalition, with the CPC having more seats in Ottawa. It goes the other way as well; if the Conservative Party puts forward an economic or social platform that Canadians are happy with, but the Party continues down the road Bernier believes it is on and weakens its stance on border control, then voters would have the chance to create a coalition government, but with Bernier’s party having more pull in the House of Commons.

If Bernier’s party does stay close to the promise he made during his leadership bid, then there shouldn’t be too much distance between the two right-wing parties to be able to create a functional coalition government. Besides their stances on the supply management and how to discuss Trudeau’s multiculturalism, they should be able to vote along the same lines for most bills in the House. There is the potential for conflict between two leaders who obviously have personal issues with one another, but individual MPs don’t always vote based on the personal disagreements of their party leaders. A coalition between Bernier’s party and the CPC could be much more functional than a coalition between the Liberals and NDP if Bernier and Scheer put their differences behind them. After all, the Conservative Party has made it clear that its number one priority is to defeat Trudeau in 2019. If teaming up with Bernier is what it takes, then perhaps they will form a government together.

Bernier’s break from the Conservative Party doesn’t mean that it will only be CPC voters he steals away, like people on both sides of the isle have said since Bernier’s exit. But that is just not the case, especially since it is Bernier who has split from the CPC. Considering the fact that the Libertarian Party leader has reached out to Bernier, it seems to be the Libertarians who stand to lose most of their support.

But there are also Liberal voters who very well could side with Bernier. In his book chapter on supply management, Bernier is discussing the historical support for the system by Canadian politicians, or lack thereof. He mentions Martha Hall Findlay, a Liberal leadership-hopeful back in 2012-13. She ultimately lost to the celebrity candidate that was Justin Trudeau, but she held the same beliefs of supply management as Bernier, and finished third in the Liberal leadership race. Bernier said that in an interview, Hall Findlay said that after the election her fellow Liberal MPs told her they agreed that supply management was no good.

If that is the case, then the Conservative Party could see itself come out of this mess relatively intact. It may have lost one of its more prominent MPs, but it shouldn’t lose too many more. Come November 2019, the CPC may be able to hold to most of the seats they have now, and still win some purely based off of the Liberal government’s mismanagement of practically every issue it has had to deal with. If Bernier is correct, then he too could steal some seats from the Liberals if their supports are in favour of abolishing supply management. He could also potentially gain some support from socialist voters who are sick of their NDP supporting a system that redistributes money to the upper classes.

It is also important to remember that Maxime Bernier is an MP from Quebec. As of right now, the Liberals and NDP have a pretty even hold on the francophone province. It is entirely possible that the voters in Quebec support a fellow Quebecois, especially with how the federal government has handled the illegal immigration crisis and handed Quebec the bill.

It is important with 2019 approaching that the Conservative Party of Canada focuses on keeping the Party unified in its mission to defeat Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford, United Alberta Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney, and former CPC Leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have all come forward in support of Andrew Scheer. There may very well be some support in the Conservative caucus for Bernier, but it doesn’t seem like he is relying on that. He knows that he came close to winning the Party’s leadership in 2016, which means that grassroots Conservatives recognized Bernier as a potential leader.

If he can create a party that can work in a coalition with the CPC, and still be different enough that right-wing Canadian voters have a choice, Maxime Bernier’s departure from the Conservative Party does not have to be all bad. It seems like Bernier, while never vocally expressing concerns in caucus, was one of the more opinionated MPs in the Conservative party. If they can focus on unifying as a party, and Bernier can create his party from grassroots supporters and not poach too many from the CPC, then Canada’s right could be stronger than ever. It is important to also read Bernier’s party platform when it is eventually released. The Toronto Star has already labeled this new party as a far-right party, with absolutely no evidence to support their claim. With today’s political climate, any movement on the Right scares the Left into tossing labels onto people before they listen to what they have to say.

Ian Kitchener

Comments

  • That was a breath to read. Unfortunately or not, recent history has shown that all this political theorizing and even scientific polling are all for naught. Brexit, Trump, Macron, Doug Ford (yes the pollsters actually did give Horwath a shot at winning) were all caught by the unknown element, that last unknown that happens when people mark their ballots. If Bernier gets his party up and running shortly, I give him as good a shot as any and he'll have my vote.

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Ian Kitchener

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