Breakfast with the Tories: Maxime Bernier, the smooth libertarian

CBC columnist Neil Macdonald sits down with Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier in his first in a series of breakfasts with CPC leadership hopefuls.

'I'm a libertarian,' he says, 'but I'm reasonable'

It actually takes some courage for a politician to advocate the end of quotas and supply management for dairy, poultry and eggs. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

Maxime Bernier eats a disciplined breakfast. Oatmeal, with a little maple syrup and a glass of water. Which is understandable.

Discipline keeps up your game. Bernier is trim and intent on staying that way. His outfit is just about perfect for a modern conservative: open-neck shirt, sleek navy suit, silk pocket square.

And his retail political skills are preternatural. Likely candidate Kevin O'Leary might think the Conservative leadership is his for the asking, but Mr. Wonderful could learn quite a bit following Bernier around for a few days.

Mid-breakfast, an affluent-looking woman walks by and she and Bernier recognize each other. Bernier's on his feet instantly, declaring it's been too long, and they must get together, and that he's in Vancouver in a couple of days.

She glances at me, and Bernier - who has clearly forgotten my name - does a quick mental two step and says "Oh, and this is the best CBC correspondent." Clever bugger.

She nods, utterly uninterested, and takes a seat in the corner. Bernier goes back to explaining himself to yet another journalist, one more moment in a 13-month slog that will, if it pays off in May, make him Conservative leader, then give way to years more of lonely slog-exhaustion.

Or not, of course.

Bernier's life is a moveable banquet of rubber chicken, and shaking grimy, anonymous hands, and pretending great interest in everyone, trying all the while to turn the discussion to Maxime Bernier. And perhaps asking for some money while he's at it.

Actually, that's unfair. What Bernier mostly turns the discussion to is his ideas.  

Less government

He's libertarian, to the extent that it's possible to be a libertarian and seek high office in a country that was built on protectionism and entitlement and government being the answer to everything.

He advocates the end of quotas and supply management for dairy, poultry and eggs. Oh, and maple syrup. Most Canadian politicians — let alone MPs representing rural Canada like Bernier — prefer to leave such topics undiscussed.   

He wants to abolish interprovincial trade barriers. Stopping companies from growing into other Canadian jurisdictions, or stopping workers from travelling between provinces, he characterizes as "foolish," "doubly foolish" and "ridiculous."  

Go ahead and argue with that.

Bernier wants an end to what he calls "corporate welfare," his term for governments using tax money to pick winners, such as Bombardier and General Motors, and letting losers struggle with market forces.

Conservative Leadership candidate Maxime Bernier spoke to reporters on Parliament Hill today 1:04

He wants to deregulate telecommunications in a country with some of the most expensive cell phone bills on earth. Let other companies come in and compete, he says.

Ditto for airports and airlines. To Bernier, more competition is always the answer.

Health care? He rather refreshingly pronounces the Canadian system, with its rationing and waiting lists and regional inequalities, "abysmal." Bernier wants to pull the federal government out of health care entirely and transfer tax points to the provinces, which are solely responsible for delivering health care in any event.

That, he says, would be the end of endless bickering and financial demands from the provinces. He concedes the plan would disadvantage poorer provinces with smaller tax bases, but says that's what equalization is for.

Bernier avoids the term "two-tier," but that's what he's proposing. He wants private delivery, but stresses his support for keeping universal health insurance: "I'm a libertarian, but I'm reasonable."

He would cut taxes. Deeply. Oh, and balance the budget in two years. Which is simply unrealistic. That explanation would take several more breakfasts.

Speaking to Quebecers

Now, none of this is to say that Bernier doesn't like talking about Bernier.

He claims to lead the Tory pack. The most recent public poll disagrees, but he says he has his own research. He raised more money than everyone else combined over the summer. His only real competition, he reckons, is O'Leary — if O'Leary ever actually declares — and fellow MP Kellie Leitch. Both of them are Trump-school agitators, something Bernier scorns.

And neither of them speaks much, if any, French. Actually, most of the Tory leadership field speaks lame or non-existent French. Yet they're willing to stand in front of television cameras, as they will again on Jan. 17, and take part in a French-only debate, an event Bernier will clearly, hugely enjoy.

"I speak French," he says, stating the obvious in fluent but accented English. With Justin Trudeau leading the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois in shambles, he says, it is delusional to think Conservatives can hope to take power in 2019 without Quebec, and taking Quebec means speaking to francophone Quebecers in their own language.

Bernier knows some in his own party write him off as extreme, but give him this: he talks policy ideas, and doesn't bottom-feed. He stays out of the nativist, anti-immigrant lagoon.

Niqab bans and barbaric practices snitch lines, he says, were a disaster for Conservatives in 2015. As for immigration screening, he points out that the Parliament Hill shooter was a Canadian citizen, born in Quebec with the name "Bibeau." If Canada has concerns about jihadist ideology, he shrugs, it should strengthen its security agencies.

Bernier says he would abolish capital gains taxes, and lower Canada's already low business tax rate by a third. (CBC)

Bernier sneaks a look at his watch. He has an appointment. Then he notices Chrystia Freeland, the new foreign affairs minister, eating breakfast with her children and father at the next table. At once he's on his feet, as though they were constituents, towering over Freeland, clasping her hand, complimenting her, telling her he hopes she enjoys the portfolio, although he disliked it when Stephen Harper gave it to him a decade ago.

Freeland introduces her dad, a farmer from northern Alberta, who tells Bernier he already knows who he is.

"The supply management boards?" asks Bernier.

Freeland's father smiles, clenches his outstretched right hand, and turns thumb down, nodding.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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