'I won't change': Maxime Bernier confident about PPC's chances with same platform
People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier (CP / CTV News)
TORONTO -- After 15 years in politics and more than his fair share of controversies, Maxime Bernier is persistent, if nothing else.
The 58-year-old leader of the libertarian-leaning People’s Party of Canada appears to be just as determined to promote his ideal vision for the country, as he was when he made his political debut as a cabinet minister under Stephen Harper in 2006.
“I believe in a smaller government that will respect people… that will respect the Constitution. That’s why I’m in politics. That’s why I decided to be in politics,” Bernier told CTVNews.ca during a phone interview in late July.
His commitment to the Constitution and smaller government is unwavering despite some rather large bumps along the way.
The corporate lawyer-turned-MP from Quebec was forced to defend his past support for separatism in the late ‘90s when he won the seat previously held by his father in the rural riding of Beauce in 2006.
He then resigned as foreign affairs minister in 2008 after he was ousted from cabinet for leaving secret documents at his then-girlfriend Julie Couillard’s home in a highly publicized scandal that should have torpedoed any future political aspirations.
But not Bernier's.
He rehabilitated his reputation and went from being a disgraced foreign affairs minister to nearly winning the Conservative Party leadership race in 2017 with more than 49 per cent of the vote – he lost to Andrew Scheer by a hair.
Not to be deterred, however, Bernier split with his long-time party in dramatic fashion – describing the Conservatives as “too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed” – and founded his own.
‘I WON’T CHANGE’
Enter the People’s Party of Canada.
The party was formed in September 2018 and “brings together common sense, populism, classical conservatism, and libertarianism,” according to its website.
“This party stands for individual freedom, personal responsibility, respect, and fairness and all our policies are in line with these four principles,” Bernier said.
These policies include phasing out the supply management system for the country’s dairy farmers; reducing equalization payments to provinces; reducing government interventions in the free market; lowering the number of immigrants and refugees accepted to Canada, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord; restricting the definition of hate speech in the Criminal Code; and withdrawing from all United Nations commitments.
If these platform pledges sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same ones championed by the PPC during the 2019 federal election when the party ran for the first time.
“We did run on the same platform in 2019 and this year, it will be the same one, and the next election in 2024, it will be the same one,” Bernier said.
And while it may seem questionable to run on the same platform after the party received only 1.6 per cent of the popular vote and no seats – Bernier even lost his own seat in Beauce – the leader explained that remaining loyal to their core principles is what distinguishes the PPC from their opponents.
“I’m a politician who is doing politics differently based on conviction and I won’t change,” he said.
“We don’t do any polling to know what Canadians want to hear and tell them that. We believe we have a vision for this country, a strong vision for a better Canada, and that’s our platform, that’s the foundation.”
Bernier is also convinced they will have an easier time campaigning this time around because they won’t have to defend themselves against persistent allegations of racism and xenophobia within the party, which he blames, in part, on the Conservative Party.
“During the last campaign, I was on the defensive, always trying to justify that we are not a racist party. So that was a difficult campaign,” he said. “That will be behind us, so that's why it will be easier.”
The PPC leader said he also thinks many Canadians misunderstood the party’s stance on immigration because the topic isn’t openly debated among English speakers as it is in Quebec.
“We always debate on immigration and that's normal, but in English Canada, that was the first time and so that's why people didn't take the time to read our platform,” he said. “We are open for immigration. We are not for mass immigration. We want more immigrants coming here as skilled immigrants.”
In an update on the PPC’s website, the party has proposed a moratorium on immigration due to COVID-19 and lockdowns until the economy has “fully recovered” and the “situation is back to normal.”
FREEDOM OF CHOICE
Speaking of the pandemic, there is one new addition to Bernier’s campaign ahead of the election in 2021 and that’s his vow to fight against COVID-19 lockdowns.
For the past few months, the PPC leader has toured Canada as part of his “Mad Max Summer 2021 Pre-Election Tour” to share his opposition to government-imposed lockdowns and vaccine passports.
In June, Manitoba RCMP arrested and charged Bernier under the Public Health Act for allegedly gathering at an outdoor public place and for failing to self-isolate when he arrived in the province.
Bernier called the incident “political repression” and said he was arrested so that he wouldn’t be able to attend a larger rally he had planned for the next day in Winnipeg.
“I was the only one to receive a ticket and I was the only one that was arrested,” he said. “I was in jail, handcuffed, and put in jail like a criminal for a non-crime after a political gathering just to be sure that I won’t be able to do the rally in Winnipeg. So that’s Canada in 2021.”
His court case has been adjourned until late August.
And while Bernier said he’s against lockdowns and vaccine passports – he thinks they will create two classes of citizens – he’s not opposed to masks or COVID-19 vaccines for others.
“I’m not anti-mask. I’m not anti-vaccine. I said publicly that we believe in freedom. We believe in freedom of choice, every Canadian must be able to decide if they want the vaccine or not,” he said.
As for his own choice, Bernier said he has not received a COVID-19 vaccine – the only major political leader not to – and has no intention to do so because he believes the virus’s risk to his health is low.
“I’m 58 years old and my chances of dying if I have COVID are only 0.05 per cent. So the statistics and the data are on my side. So it's a personal decision,” he said.
Public health officials, on the other hand, have repeatedly urged all adults to get vaccinated to protect against severe illness and prevent the virus from spreading to vulnerable groups.
‘WE WILL BE READY’
Bernier’s message appears to be resonating in Western Canada where he said they’re enjoying a “bit more support," according to a poll by Abacus Data that came out in early July, than in other parts of the country. However, he stressed that the PPC is appealing to voters across Canada and not just former Conservatives.
“The person in charge of my organization in Winnipeg [RB Ham] is a former NDP that was a volunteer for the NDP for the last 20 years and that person decided to come with us because of the COVID hysteria,” he said. “Leftist people are coming to me and [saying] ‘You’re the only one. You’re the only one who’s going to save our country.’”
It’s sentiments like these that are bolstering Bernier’s confidence leading up to the election.
“We’re travelling across the country and we will be ready for the next election. We have more than 200 candidates selected up until now, our goal is to have a full slate of candidates,” he said. “I think this time, we'll be able to have 338 candidates. We want to give the opportunity to every Canadian to be able to vote for the PPC.”
Bernier said he’s also not concerned about the conservative vote being split amongst his party, the Conservatives, and other fringe parties, including the Western Canada separatist Maverick Party and Independent MP Derek Sloan’s yet-to-be-named new party.
The PPC leader said during the last election, Canadians told him that they didn’t vote for him because they didn’t want to split the conservative vote and allow the Liberals to win. This time, however, he said voters, especially in B.C. and Alberta, are approaching him and telling him they’re not worried about that this time.
“I said ‘Why?’ They said ‘Because we know that Erin O'Toole won't win and I don't want to waste my vote,’” Bernier said.
“The only person that is splitting the vote is Erin O’Toole. His goal is to split the liberal vote and he's doing that pretty well.”
Nanos Research's Nik Nanos said in their current polling, the PPC has four per cent support, but that it’s difficult to tell whether these other fringe parties will cut into that piece of the pie when the election is called.
He said the existence of the PPC, Maverick Party, and Sloan’s new party doesn’t look good from an optics perspective for O’Toole.
“Even if these parties amount to zilch, diddly squat, the optics is not good because it just speaks to conservatives not being united,” he told CTV News’ Trend Line podcast in July.
However, Rupen Seoni at Environics Analytics, who has analyzed voting data from the last federal election, said he doubts the PPC and other fringe parties will be able to hurt the Conservatives in the vote share, even when they’re combined.
“If we look at any one voter segment, the biggest supporters are at best going to be a little over three points, combined, with the PPC and all the other parties,” he said, looking at the results of the last election.
Even if he looks at the voting results in Alberta, where the PPC had significantly more support with 2.2 per cent of the vote in 2019, Seoni said the Conservatives still had a whopping 69 per cent.
“It just doesn’t matter,” he said. “I can’t see where the People's Party could really have much of an impact in any real results, or even actually win over any voter segments, unless there was an absolutely dramatic movement en masse of a whole lot of voters to them.”
As for whether he thinks Bernier will win back his old seat in Beauce, Seoni said the PPC leader is “competitive” in the riding, but he would have to win back a lot of seats the Conservatives claimed there in the last election.
“He could certainly do it,” he said. “It's possible, but he's got a big gap to close with the Conservatives there.”
While it may be a crowded playing field for conservative-leaning parties, Bernier said he thinks the PPC will be a real contender this election.
“We’re ready. We'll have candidates. We have more money in the bank than the last time. We will be competitive,” he said. “I believe that our percentage of the vote will grow and the PPC will, therefore, [be around] for a long time."
Environics is a Bell Canada company