Conservatives gather in Halifax for caucus without Maxime Bernier

Conservative parliamentarians arrive in Halifax today for what is poised to be one of the most fraught caucus meetings the group has had in recent months — a meeting that comes at a critical juncture, only weeks before MPs return to Ottawa for the last few months on the parliamentary calendar before the 2019 federal election.

'We're going off-message with this Bernier business,' Conservative senator says

Andrew Scheer, right, is congratulated by Maxime Bernier after being elected the new leader of the federal Conservatives at the party's leadership convention in Toronto in May 2017. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Conservative parliamentarians arrive in Halifax today for what is poised to be one of the most fraught caucus meetings the group has had in recent months — a meeting that comes at a critical juncture, only weeks before MPs return to Ottawa for the last few months on the parliamentary calendar before the 2019 federal election.

The meeting is being held on the sidelines of the Conservative policy convention, but Maxime Bernier, who has been on a social media tear in recent days speaking out against the Liberal government's diversity and immigration policies, won't be there.

Instead, the Beauce MP, who nearly bested Andrew Scheer for the leadership, is holding his own media appearance in Ottawa at 1 p.m. ET. (Watch live here.)

Scheer has been facing demands — largely from his political opponents — to dump the Quebec MP from caucus for tweets that have been labelled xenophobic by some and the start of a legitimate debate over Canadian identity and the role of immigration by others.

While Scheer has said Bernier does not speak for the party, the Conservative leader has had to walk a fine line, refusing to strongly condemn his former foe, knowing many of his party's supporters are sympathetic to Bernier's critiques of "ever more diversity."

Bernier himself has pointed to recent polling that suggests a significant number of Canadians are uneasy with the current level of newcomers.

But it is not just Liberal MPs, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who have voiced unease with the tone of Bernier's Twitter campaign.​ CBC News spoke to a number of Conservative MPs and senators ahead of the caucus meeting, some of whom said they were frustrated by Bernier.

While happy to debate the perceived failings of the Liberal approach to diversity and immigration, some of these Conservatives say Bernier's tweets have been an unwanted distraction and "an embarrassment" to Scheer as a leader.

"We've been up [in the polls] and now we're going off-message with this Bernier business. It's an embarrassment for the leader," said one Conservative senator, who spoke to CBC News on background.

Speaking in Halifax on Thursday, Conservative Manitoba MP James Bezan said he was "pretty mad" at Bernier and disappointed that the former leadership contender is skipping the caucus meeting Thursday.

"I continue to be disappointed with Max — I think a lot of us are — for his comments. They've been divisive, he's done nothing to build our base, he continues to undermine our ability to take Justin Trudeau to task. I'm really disappointed that he's going to miss caucus and that opportunity for the rest of us to talk directly to him.

"If Max was a team player, he'd be here ... it speaks to his character," Bezan said. "He's obviously trying to dodge the tough questions. I continue to ask him to apologize for those comments, to stand behind our leader and to work as part of our team so we can dethrone Justin Trudeau in the next federal election."

Social media sarcasm?

Particularly embarrassing, a number of Conservatives said, is a tweet Bernier sent Wednesday that seemed to sarcastically praise the party's "strong leadership." Bernier said some Tories spent the better part of the last week critiquing his views on diversity and immigration, only to then reveal the beginnings of a Conservative playbook on the issue at a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

Alberta MP Michelle Rempel, the party's immigration critic and herself a frequent critic of the government's handling of the influx of asylum seekers, said publicly of Bernier what other Conservatives have said in private: "He has a decision to make: Does he want Andrew Scheer to win or does he want Justin Trudeau to win?"

One MP pointed to a small drop in the latest Nanos poll for his party, as well as the reported Liberal fundraising success over the last week, as a sign that Bernier's message might have put a small dent in Tory numbers — especially in the immigrant- and vote-rich Greater Toronto Area, where former cabinet minister Jason Kenney sowed the seeds for the Conservative Party among a diverse coalition of voters. Before Kenney's efforts, many immigrants were often Liberal.

'Remain focused'

Alberta MP Deepak Obhrai, who also vied for the leadership against Scheer, has been critical of Bernier's tweet. But he also said the Tories should be wary of being drawn into a divisive internal debate, adding that such a spat would amount to handing the Liberals a win.

"I can see Mr. Trudeau trying to make an issue out of it," he said in an interview on Power and Politics. "Well, that's Liberal politics. We should remain focused [on other issues]."

He said one of the hallmarks of the Conservative Party and its predecessor, the now-defunct Reform party, is that it allows its parliamentarians and grassroots members to express differing views.

Other Conservative MPs said Bernier's tweets threaten to undermine Scheer's nascent leadership and help foster a narrative, in the media at least, that he is ineffectual in dealing with dissent within his caucus — a charge that was rarely levelled against his former prime minister Stephen Harper, who kept his team on a tight leash to avoid sending mixed signals to voters.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel outlined the party's vision for what it called 'fair, orderly and compassionate' immigration on Wednesday, before being drawn into questions about the ongoing debate about Maxime Bernier. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Another MP said Bernier is clearly emboldened by Scheer's relative tolerance for this latest batch of tweets.

That is in contrast to earlier this year, when Bernier pulled a planned book from publication after inferring Scheer won the 2017 leadership campaign because of support from "fake conservatives" who backed Scheer because of his defence of supply management.​ Bernier is strongly opposed to the policy, and was later removed as the party's industry critic.

This time, Bernier has doubled down on his messaging.

While there is unease with Bernier's recent Twitter campaign, it is not yet clear if there is an organized movement afoot to formally boot Bernier from the party's caucus.

Under rules adopted by the caucus after the passage of Ontario Conservative MP Michael Chong's Reform Act, 20 per cent of caucus would have to agree — in writing — to even hold such a vote. Then at least 50 per cent plus one of the caucus would have to vote to remove him at a caucus meeting.

One senator said there is little appetite for such a move, as it could derail a convention designed to showcase Scheer. The leader will deliver a speech Friday which party operatives have spent considerable time helping to craft, and design at least part of a platform to take the Opposition party into the next election.

The Conservative convention runs from Thursday to Saturday.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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