I wound my way back to Calgary with my family last week, bronzed and recharged, albeit lungs a bit blackened after summer vacation in the “Smokanagan”. The road trip, normally a six-hour trek, had stretched to ten hours by the time we pulled our Suburban into our Calgary driveway.
We spent hours idling on the tarmac in the forest-fire-generated haze that has choked much of Western Canada this summer, peering dimly at road crews restoring and building roads and bridges. Winter and road construction constitute the only two seasons in much of Canada, practically speaking. Harsh Canadian winters play havoc with our highways and byways, heaving asphalt and cracking pavement, spawning huge potholes that can swallow entire vehicles. It’s likely that Amelia Earhart, hopelessly off course in her attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1937, flew her plane into a giant Canadian pothole, never to be heard from again.
And with August winding down sensible Calgarians have teed up the swapping of tires for winter treads: random September snowstorms are Nature’s ways of reminding us who’s boss around here.
For the Conservative Party of Canada the deep freeze has already arrived, its hopes of evicting Justin Trudeau from office next year iced by malcontent Maxime Bernier. The party was already in plenty of trouble before Bernier’s bombshell betrayal last week, the great, lumbering vehicle of the Canadian right cratered not by a pothole but by a dimple - by two dimples, actually, twin depressions surrounded by Andrew Scheer, the large man at the helm of the party who has mirrored his surname by remaining invisible, inexplicably, to the Canadian electorate.
Inexplicably, I say, because a Conservative victory next year should have been a fait accompli, akin to taking candy from a baby. Growing numbers of Canadians are weary of Trudeau, sick of his constant virtue-signaling and divisive identity politics, embarrassed by his pratfalls on the world stage, thoroughly alarmed by his missteps on trade and immigration, and disgusted by his hypocrisy on everything from the Summer Jobs program to his penalty-free groping of a female reporter in Creston, B.C.
But Andrew Scheer has struggled to pluck that low-hanging political fruit, and the “resting dimple face” that belies his attempts at gravitas on any issue is the very least of his problems. He’s beset by timidity, seemingly, chronically fearful of offending potential voters, unwilling to articulate bold, principled conservative stances on immigration, corporate welfare, trade policy, and supply management.
Scheer has banked, presumably, on the political maxim that governments defeat themselves, gambling that his path to victory consists simply of staying out of Trudeau’s way as he self-destructs. But it’s a dangerous wager, one he cannot win without proving himself as viable alternative, as a credible candidate with substance and backbone and conviction to whom voters can shift their allegiance.
Maxime Bernier suffers not from timidity. He’s been the pimple to Andrew’s dimple, so to speak, protuberant to the point of bursting with ideas and principles and plenty of ego, a titan of Twitter, unafraid to blare abroad his conservative and libertarian views – views, incidentally, that have plenty of purchase among the Canadian electorate.
The “Bernier problem” had its genesis in last year’s Conservative Party leadership race, a contest Andrew Scheer won by milking the votes of Quebec dairy farmers who purchased temporary party memberships to block Bernier and his supply-management-hating agenda. Bernier topped each of the first twelve ballots before the farmers herded Scheer to victory by a nose in the thirteenth round.
It was a Faustian bargain, as Scheer has discovered. “I owe my soul to the company store,” drawled Tennessee Ernie Ford some decades ago - perhaps 16 Tons should be the unhappy theme song to Scheer’s political campaign next year. So beholden is he to the dairy lobby that he couldn’t even permit, within the supposedly big tent of the Conservative Party, a smidgen of open discussion at last week’s convention on the wholly debatable supply management scheme.
And it was this policy, currently being brandished as cudgel by Trump on trade, that more than any other drove Bernier from the Conservative tent and threatens its collapse. The pimple has burst, its eruption timed diabolically by Bernier, and his betrayal has converted the party’s dimpled predicament into a mammoth sinkhole: it’s difficult to see how Conservatives can find their way out.
Enraged Conservatives have circled the wagons, united in parroting the “goodbye and good riddance” line to anyone who will listen, desperately hoping that the residue of Max will dry up and disappear now that the pustule has popped. Maybe they’re right: his petulant exit may be but brief prelude to obscurity. But as many an acne-afflicted adolescent will attest, one eruption can mutate into raging inferno; pubescence is literally strewn with pimples before giving way to maturity.
Conservatives tempted to dismiss Bernier as a temporary irritant ignore at their peril that this man has a legitimate following, that if not for the dairy farmers Mad Max would be their leader today. And it’s worth noting that Maxime’s libertarian and conservative ideas have much in common with the philosophical offerings of rock-star Toronto psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson - anyone who remains oblivious to the enormous influence wielded by that man has their head buried deep in a Canadian snowbank. Millions of Canadians captivated by Peterson will be mightily tempted to find a political home with Parti Bernier. (Peterson, incidentally, has mused openly about tossing his hat into the political arena, and he’s not fussed about under which banner - he simply needs a political vehicle. An Abacus poll published two days ago had Bernier at 13% even before his party has formed, and if Peterson hitches his wagon to Bernier’s nascent star, look out.)
Bernier may fancy himself a modern-day Winston Churchill, the British Bulldog whose principles drove him to abandon his party not once but twice, hopping from Conservatives to Liberals and back again. Churchill spent years in the political wilderness as penance, scorned and mistrusted, but – well, we all know the rest. ‘Twas a different era, mind you, bereft of the suffocating blanket of social media and relentless focus on image: imagine a corpulent, cigar-chomping Churchill taking selfies with his admirers – cellphones would explode.
Bernier is no Churchill, of course. And unlike Winston, who rode established party apparatus in his day as conduit to power, he proposes the stupendously difficult task of building his party from scratch. And if Michelle Rempel’s scathing assessment of his energies holds any water (“If he works as hard as he has in the Conservative Party, we don’t have a lot to worry about,” she carped on Twitter) we’ll witness daffodils in January before a Prime Minister Maxime Bernier.
What he will do is siphon plenty of votes from the Conservatives, and we know perfectly well what fragmenting the right wing of politics produces for our country. Preston Manning, stellar leader and statesman, did manage by gargantuan effort and teamwork to build a conservative vehicle from the ground up, but his great Reform Party movement served only to gift Jean Chretien with consecutive Liberal majorities.
The Liberals are currently hugging themselves in paroxysms of joy, but I, for one, am in mourning. My well-known antipathy to Justin Trudeau as PM took root in his dishonest and disgusting portrayal in the House of Commons of doctors as tax cheats. But the prime minister’s perpetual, hypocritical drumbeat of “feminism” and “tolerance” cloaks not just incompetence but cynical and dangerous divisiveness, and my disgust has flowered into outright alarm.
And now into unbridled dismay: because barring a miracle, the chance of unseating Trudeau at the ballot box in 2019 has vanished as completely as Amelia Earhart’s airplane.