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Recent missteps aside, Maxime Bernier could win the Conservative leadership race

If you have an office pool going on who will be the next leader of the federal Conservative Party — and by extension the most likely person to be the next prime minister — Maxime Bernier wouldn’t be a bad pick.

If you have an office pool going on who will be the next leader of the federal Conservative Party — and by extension the most likely person to be the next prime minister — Maxime Bernier wouldn’t be a bad pick.

The former cabinet minister and current MP for the Quebec riding of Beauce was in Whitehorse recently shoring up support for his leadership bid. He had previously secured the support of our former MP, Ryan Leef, who’s working on Bernier’s campaign.

Widely touted as a top contender for the leadership, Bernier doesn’t inspire the negative reaction that some of his fellow top tier candidates do — although that may be on the verge of changing for reasons I’ll return to.

Bombastic entertainment investor Kevin O’Leary of Dragon Den and Shark Tank fame appears to be just visiting Canada. He is so obsessed with making money that Mark Cuban, one of his former Shark Tank co-hosts, decided to speak out about O’Leary’s lack of empathy.

The self-anointed leader of the Conservatives’ Deplorable wing, Kellie Leitch, has so appalled tolerant Canadians of all political stripes that some have been purchasing memberships in the Conservative Party just to block her leadership bid.

That Bernier has such a good chance suggests a change in the federal Conservative Party from its roots as an occasionally uneasy alliance of populist social conservatives and so-called Red Tories.

Bernier is neither and is as awkward a fit in the traditional mold of Canadian conservatives as Leitch or O’Leary are, albeit in a much different way.

For those unfamiliar with him, Bernier fancies himself a libertarian conservative. Historically one of the smaller factions within the Conservative Party coalition, libertarians are generally unconcerned with who you share your bed with or how much weed you like to smoke in your shed. So they are, on the face of it at least, a little more palatable to those of us who are socially liberal than many of the the more traditional conservatives in the running.

But libertarians also have a tendency to double down on the small government aspects of conservativism in comparison to their more traditional counterparts. Yes, most conservatives believe that government is too large and taxes are too high, but many still place a certain value on the concept of community and the welfare of the truly hard done by. Such considerations are an affront to personal liberty and regarded as coercive, even tyrannical, by true libertarians.

Much of Bernier’s platform stays true to his libertarian values. He calls for an end to supply management, the privatization of Canada Post and a reduced role for the CRTC in regulating telecommunication — sacred cows his more traditional conservative counterparts are reluctant to slaughter (publicly at least).

He also calls for a significant flattening of the tax code, and an abolition of capital gains tax — to be paid for by the elimination of certain undisclosed so-called boutique tax credits. He envisions a smaller role for Ottawa in health care by transferring tax points to provinces instead of cash — a move which works to the benefit of those larger, wealthier provinces with greater capacity to tax.

That is a lot of red meat for a certain constituency within the Conservative Party. We will have to see how appealing his program will be to the broader electorate if he secures the leadership.

Those boutique tax credits are popular with the groups they target, which is why the Harper government created so many of them. There are people with strong vested interests in supply management, and while we may not care for our cell phone providers, Bernier’s proposal to open up telecommunications to foreign competition will spark concerns and resistance.

If Bernier manages to win, will he pivot as he seeks to broaden his appeal to the wider electorate? Libertarianism tends to place ideological principles above practical political considerations but it is the latter that gets you elected. The question is whether a Bernier-led Conservative Party would stay true to those libertarian roots or if he would moderate his approach like his predecessor Stephen Harper.

We already saw a hint of Bernier’s moderation in the pursuit of power in some of the concessions he has made to the north. Yukoners are keenly aware of how important federal transfer payments are to our way of life in the North. Talk of downsizing Ottawa’s role in the federation makes us nervous. Not to worry, Bernier assures us. We are different up here and all that talk about rolling back transfers doesn’t apply to you.

He has also strayed from his core message recently by tweeting about so-called “radical multiculturalism.” He opposed a motion on Islamophobia and amendments to the Human Rights Act protecting transgendered people on free speech grounds. While free speech is certainly a laudable libertarian ideal, it is impinged by neither of those, suggesting his goal was to pander to unfounded fears in the pursuit of votes. His recent online campaign asking supporters to “take the red pill” has garnered controversy with critics who allege it was a subtle appeal to anti-feminist men’s rights activists (although it seems more likely to me that the intent here was a innocent reference to the 1999 dystopian sci-fi movie The Matrix).

There are a number of other candidates in the race and with a ranked ballot, it is important not to put too much stock in the horserace numbers. But a Main Street Poll conducted earlier in February among Conservative members found that only three candidates — O’Leary, Leitch and Bernier — had double-digit support. That doesn’t guarantee that one of them will win, but it doesn’t mean nothing, either.

With the more centrist — Michael Chong, Lisa Raitt, Andre Scheer and Erin O’Toole — firmly in the rear, Bernier has a decent chance of being the compromise candidate for Conservatives who don’t care for the other major candidates. That would be a remarkable development and a significant ideological change for the Conservative Party.

For that reason, the rest of us ought to being paying attention to Maxime Bernier.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.