Maxime Bernier: is he the only true libertarian candidate?

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We’re just three months away from choosing a new leader for the Conservative Party of Canada, and the choice is crucial.

If the Tories shoot themselves in the foot (as they are wont to do… Joe Clark anyone?) then we will be looking at four more years of the massively incompetent media darling, Justin ‘Sunny Ways’ Trudeau.

Kevin O’Leary belatedly threw his hat into the ring, but has almost instantly surpassed Maxime Bernier (by a slim margin) as frontrunner. To be sure, O’Leary is no Joe Clark, but neither is he a libertarian, let alone conservative.

He described himself as an “expansionist conservative,” when speaking to John Ivison, Ottawa bureau chief for the National Post, judging from O’Leary’s stated positions on the military, gun control, corporate welfare and program spending, “expansionist conservative” is just code for “Liberal lite.”

For the Tories to choose O’Leary as leader is not much more than to choose a bald, surly version of Trudeau. Furthermore, we have the examples of “Liberal lite” in former Tory leaders Robert Stanfield and the aforementioned Joe Clark. Given the choice of the liberal they know versus the liberal they don’t know, the electorate will most likely choose the former, or at best awards red Tories an unstable minority government.

Now, you might say that most of former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s time in office was in a minority government, which is true, but it was during a rare time in Canadian history when the left of centre opposition was splintered.

The next Tory leader will be facing a strong incumbent Liberal party. So, what will the Tories offer as an alternative to the Liberal vision for Canada?

It can be said that all 14 candidates, with the exception of Maxime Bernier, believe in government intervention; both in the economy, and in civil liberties to some extent. It should also be noted that, with just three months remaining in the race, Bernier is the only candidate to release a complete platform.

But let us examine the positions of the other candidates first – based on what they have released to date or stated publicly.

Michael Chong – the most liberal candidate – is in favour of some sort of carbon tax, with assurances that such a tax would be revenue neutral. As Bernier has pointed out (with economic and historical fact on his side) no tax can ever be revenue neutral, as a new level of bureaucracy has to be created to administer it. Furthermore, if a tax is created to curb behavior, then it stands to reason citizens either pay more tax, or the government loses revenue that must be recouped elsewhere.

The Insiders

The next group of candidates are very much the CPC (Conservative Party of Canada) insider crowd: Erin O’Toole, Andrew Saxton, Lisa Raitt, Chris Alexander, Deepak Obhrai, and Andrew Scheer.

Scheer, who has the most CPC endorsements, is certainly the establishment darling.

Young, tall, and (now) slim – the youngest ever speaker of the house seems to want to add Tory Party leader to his resume, and the Tory Party, it seems, wants to help him.

Scheer makes all of the right noises to the party faithful: lower taxes, less gun control, sensible immigration, but has no concrete policies beyond that.

He seems to want to be liked. In debates he tries to adopt a ‘gee shucks’ demeanor that can come across as smug. In the comparisons to Trudeau, glibness is certainly a trait they share.

Can a politician whose first impulse is to be liked, steer Canada in a new direction from the liberals? Can he fight the massive liberal bureaucracy who cheered Trudeau’s ascension? That seems unlikely.

The rest of the insider candidates mirror Scheer to some degree or another, but with less likeability.

The Social Conservatives

Then there are the social conservatives: Steve Blaney, Brad Trost, and Pierre Lemieux.

In debates, Blaney and Lemieux have had their moments and at least bring to the table conversations the party establishment would rather not have. Trost is somewhat of a non-entity, and one wonders why a man with so little ideological passion would choose to run for a leadership position?

The Outsiders

Lastly, the outsiders: Kelly Leitch, Kevin O’Leary, and Rick Peterson.

As noted earlier, O’Leary’s celebrity has propelled him to the forefront of the leadership race, while Leitch has tried to separate herself from the pack with a strong immigration policy and an emphasis on Canadian values.

Peterson is perhaps the only other candidate that could be labelled libertarian, with his platform of small government and low taxes. However, he lacks Bernier’s commitment to ending corporate welfare and supply management.

Bernier, it’s true, could be called a career politician, although he is almost unique (in Canada anyway) in that he, to all appearances, is entirely ideologically driven. He refused to champion tariffs against Chinese bicycles even though it hurt his electoral chances in his own riding.

Supply management in the dairy industry in Canada keeps prices, especially cheese, artificially high, to the benefit of a small industry; mostly in his home province of Quebec. Yet he is firm in his commitment to ending that misguided policy.

Likewise, he criticizes corporate subsidies, specifically to Bombardier (a large Quebec based company), but none of this has affected his popularity in Quebec.

It would seem he is aware that those who disagree with his policies were unlikely to vote for him in the first place – a perspective the Harper government never grasped.

He has instead staked out a clear vision for Quebec and Canada, a libertarian future.

Over and over, in debate, and in interviews, he has not equivocated on bedrock libertarian principles. This is a first for a major party leader in Canada, and a rarity (one could argue) in the western world; at least since the classical liberals of the 19th century.

Bernier, is proud of his libertarian bona fides, and it is clear, he will either lead the CPC (and hopefully Canada) as a libertarian, or die on that hill.

* Alan Forsythe is a Vancouver-based journalist.

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