Maxime Bernier targets untapped voters with broader populist platform

OTTAWA — Maxime Bernier insists the populist pillars of his young political party have nothing to do with opportunism and everything to do with ideology.

And if someone were to call him an ideologue, he'd take it as a compliment.

Bernier has constructed the People's Party of Canada by meshing his long-known libertarian convictions with a collection of more recent, strong public stances on social issues.

He's raised eyebrows and triggered controversy defending positions far different from his opponents', including calls to fight "mass immigration" and "extreme multiculturalism." He called teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg "mentally unstable" on Twitter, a charge he later walked back.

The veteran politician has been using his year-old party to argue for, among other ideas, fences along parts of the U.S.-Canada frontier to stop the illegal entry of refugees, slashing immigration levels by more than half and rejecting climate-change "alarmism."

Bernier had no clear public track record of advocating for these positions during more than a decade as a Conservative MP. Nor were they part of his platform a couple of years ago when he finished a close second in the party's leadership race to Andrew Scheer.

For example, he called leadership rival Kellie Leitch a "karaoke version of Donald Trump" in a 2016 debate because of her pledges to crack down on immigration.

Bernier has since adopted Leitch's controversial vow to screen newcomers with his own promise to introduce immigrant interviews designed to "assess the extent to which they align with Canadian values and societal norms."

His newer public positions raise a question: are Canadians getting the real Maxime Bernier?

"It's not based on a political calculation," Bernier said in an interview with The Canadian Press earlier this month.

"It's based on an ideology. And if some say that Maxime is an ideologue, well, for me I would take it as a compliment because most politicians today are at the mercy of opinion polls."

Bernier insists there's no specific attempt to attract social or fiscal conservatives with his new party. It's simply putting forward policies good for all Canadians, he says.

The People's Party was launched last September, only a few weeks after Bernier's bombshell break from the Scheer-led Conservatives. 

On his way out, he tore into his former leader and colleagues, calling them "too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed." He said Scheer, as prime minister, would just lead a more moderate version of Justin Trudeau's "disastrous" government.

At first, Bernier's new party worried Conservatives. Rachel Curran, who was a director of policy for former prime minister Stephen Harper, wrote on Twitter at the time: "I hope Justin Trudeau and his cabinet colleagues are breaking out the champagne... Congratulations to @gmbutts [Gerald Butts, Trudeau's principal secretary] & co. who have secured an easy win in 2019 despite a mostly terrible summer."

It remains unclear if the People's Party can hurt the Conservatives by drawing away votes on the right and whether it will be to able capture any seats of its own. Opinion polls have suggested the party could attract as much as four per cent of the popular vote.

Bernier argues there's lots of potential for his party, particularly since more than 30 per cent of eligible voters did not cast ballots in 2015. With polls suggesting Canadians could elect a minority Parliament next month, he's hoping his party can secure the influential balance-of-power position.

"At this moment, there is a certain momentum," said Bernier, who intends to run candidates in all 338 ridings.

"There is a certain political clientele for a politician who says what needs to be said and who speaks the truth, in my opinion. And who doesn't make any compromises."

His smaller-government economic philosophy has been familiar to those who have followed his political career.

During his Conservative leadership bid — and now as leader of the People's Party — he's been pledging to balance the federal books within two years, to eliminate corporate welfare, such as government loans and grants, and to get rid of foreign development assistance. He's also vowed to introduce corporate tax cuts and to phase out Canada's supply-managed system for dairy, poultry and eggs, which he calls a "cartel."

But at the helm of his own party, Bernier has also taken up some new views.

In his 2016-17 leadership platform, for instance, he said Canada should accept 250,000 immigrants per year, down from 300,000 under the Trudeau government.

In comparison, the People's Party platform for the 2019 election pledges to avoid putting too much financial burden on Canadians by cutting immigration to between 100,000 and 150,000 people a year.

"The primary aim of Canada's immigration policy should be to economically benefit Canadians and Canada as a whole," the People's Party says in its platform. "It should not be used to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of our country."

Kory Teneycke, who was Harper's communications director, provided advice to Bernier partway through his leadership bid. Teneycke said he came up with the line comparing Leitch to Trump, and that Bernier was happy to use it.

"Now, he appears to have overshot even where she was," Teneycke said. 

"So, that is a bit surprising to me and probably to other people who know Max or who have worked with Max ... He was campaigning against a number of the positions that he's advocating now."

He said Bernier must believe it's politically advantageous. Teneycke said he thinks the People's Party is far enough on the periphery that it will likely attract people who typically don't vote, rather than pull support from existing parties.

But Bernier could still have an impact in a small number of ridings, he added.

As a person, Teneycke said there are a lot of nice things you can say about Bernier, but he thinks his Achilles heel in politics has been judgment.

"I think he's made a big judgment error around playing footsie with xenophobic, radical elements," Teneycke said.

"I think it will put an indelible stain on his career."

Bernier, a charismatic lawyer and businessman, was first elected to the House of Commons in 2006, winning 67 per cent of the popular vote in his rural riding south of Quebec City. The seat had been held for more than a decade by his father, Gilles.

The younger Bernier was considered by many at the time as a key to the Conservatives' renewal efforts in Quebec and a potential party leader.

Harper named him foreign-affairs minister. In that role, however, Bernier made big headlines for the wrong reasons.

He was forced to resign in 2008 over a security breach after he left confidential briefing notes at the home his then-girlfriend Julie Couillard, who reportedly had ties to Quebec's notorious biker gangs.

Looking forward, Bernier said the construction of his new party is still in its early stages and to keep the process moving along he will have to re-capture his home seat of Beauce, where he has cruised to victory in four elections.

This time could be different. Bernier says he's neck and neck in the polls with the Conservative candidate — Richard Lehoux, a former mayor in the region and former president of Quebec's federation of municipalities.

Bernier said he's been telling local voters that he's still the same guy who defends liberty and their values, even if some don't recognize the name of his new party.

"I want to be there for the long term, but it will be Beaucerons who will decide my political future."

— with files from Lina Dib and Catherine Levesque

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press