Bernier or bust: Mad Max’s path to a new political party not all that twisty

55-year-old veteran MP tore a strip off Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives in a dramatic exit

Maxime Bernier announces he will leave the Conservative party during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday August 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Maxime Bernier showed the country Thursday why his self-assigned nickname “Mad Max” is more than just a little apt.

The 55-year-old veteran MP tore a strip off Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives on Thursday in a dramatic exit from the party he has called home for more than a decade.

But his departure didn’t surprise those who have witnessed his ambitious personal brand of politicking over the years.

Bernier “chose himself,” said Michelle Rempel, the Calgary MP who earlier this week challenged Bernier to decide just whom he was working to help — Scheer’s Conservatives or Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

Bernier’s split from the Conservatives started to materialize in May 2017, when he narrowly lost the leadership to Scheer, but the dam burst last week after a series of Bernier’s tweets about “too much diversity” being bad for Canada pushed Scheer to publicly distance himself from the Quebec MP.

The signs of a Mad Max party have been growing since this April, when Bernier published a promotional book chapter calling out Scheer for pandering to “fake Conservatives” in order to win the party leadership. His email missives to supporters who signed up on his website have been rife with hints he saw himself as an independent. In one, he argued he was the only politician in Ottawa — Scheer included — who could successfully negotiate a new trade deal with President Donald Trump. In others he talked about travelling the country to promote his “movement.”

Friends watching this all unfold were quietly urging him to step aside gracefully, take a job in the private sector and leave himself room for a political comeback once Scheer’s time in the sun was up.

Adam Daifallah, managing partner of Montreal public affairs firm Hatley Strategy Advisors and a long-time observer of conservative politics, says ”that possibility is out the window now.”

Bernier’s choice to leave would have been taken hard no matter when he announced it; but doing so on the morning of the party’s policy convention was a conscious choice to have maximum impact, said Daifallah.

“I don’t see how you could interpret it any other way,” he said.

Born in the smallish city of Saint-Georges, an hour or so south of Quebec City, Bernier grew up to earn degrees in economics and law and worked in both finance and law firms before turning to politics. He was once a Quebec separatist but his politics have long been centred around libertarian ideals of independence, limited government and provincial autonomy.

Daifallah says Bernier is wrong to think that just because his favoured ideas aren’t getting picked up right now that there is no place for him within the party.

But even in his pre-political days, Bernier was known to be unbending in his demands. In 2001 he was fired from the Quebec Securities Commission because, by his own admission, he challenged the director too much because he didn’t think she was leading the commission in the right direction.

In 2007, about a year and a half after being named the minister of industry, he was abruptly moved to foreign affairs. The move came in part because Bernier was quietly trying to push his anti-corporate subsidies ideology even as he directed the department handing them out.

If he irritated the party brass in that role, he really stepped in the muck in foreign affairs. First, he prompted a diplomatic headache when he suggested the governor of Kandahar province in Afghanistan was corrupt and should be replaced. Then, he left classified documents at his girlfriend’s home. The latter led to the first time he would be fired from his party’s inner circle.

Still, Bernier’s importance to the Conservatives, as a leader among the party’s libertarian wing and a popular and well-known Quebec MP, made him too important to keep on the outside for long. In 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled him back into cabinet where he stayed until the government was defeated in 2015.

The Conservatives need more seats in Quebec and more votes in urban areas and among young people, to be truly competitive in 2019. Bernier could likely have helped with all three.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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