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Maxime Bernier's ‘freedom platform’ a gamble if he became Tory leader

Leadership hopeful Maxime Bernier is seen at the national Conservative summer caucus retreat in Halifax in September, 2016. Mr. Bernier is holding firm on his so-called ‘freedom platform,’ a plan to dramatically scale back the size of government.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Maxime Bernier does not intend to put any water in his wine if he winds up leading the Official Opposition into the next federal election.

"No! No! That will be no! No!" the country's most prominent libertarian replied during a recent interview in his parliamentary office, when asked whether he might be prepared to soften his "freedom platform" in the name of party unity or broader electoral appeal.

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"I won't change. I want my platform to be the platform of the Conservative Party of Canada, and after that to be the agenda of government."

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He knows, he said, that the governing Liberals would warn of dire consequences from his plan to dramatically scale back the size of government – getting Ottawa out of health care, deregulating industries, refusing under any circumstances to provide business subsidies, taking a very big chunk out of program spending – and his party would probably dip in popularity for a while. But he would stick with it, refusing to bend, and fellow Conservatives would have to go along with it.

It was a response that might help demonstrate why the veteran MP for Beauce, a Quebec riding uniquely aligned with his particular strain of conservativism, has emerged as one of the front-runners in the Tories' 14-candidate leadership field despite not being taken all that seriously when he entered it.

It also underscored the enormous gamble that he would represent for his party, the scale of which has not really gotten its due, during a contest in which candidates who entered with even more outsider status than him – reality-TV entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary first among them – have made "Mad Max" appear much closer to the political mainstream than he ever did before.

In many ways, he has been the closest the Tories' race has come to a feel-good story.

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Mr. Bernier's political career was left for dead in 2008, when he was dumped as Stephen Harper's foreign affairs minister for leaving sensitive documents at the home of a girlfriend with past ties to biker gangs. Then he slowly rebuilt it by fashioning himself as the principled voice for his party's libertarian wing – the rare Conservative MP who was willing to publicly advocate for policies, such as an end to supply management, at odds with Mr. Harper.

He was still easily dismissed at the leadership race's outset – the sort of candidate patted on the head for infusing a campaign with ideas, not really expected to win. But his happy-warrior demeanour has proved a good fit with the long grind of building support on the ground, and Conservative insiders suggest he's doing better than most candidates at signing up new members and winning over existing ones. (A cloud was cast over some of this success late this week, when Mr. O'Leary's campaign publicly alleged that Toronto-area organizers for Mr. Bernier were fraudulently submitting sign-ups; despite often boasting about running a positive campaign Mr. Bernier fired back with a fundraising letter that called Mr. O'Leary a "loser" who is "throwing mud to try to save his own campaign.")

It's helped that Mr. Bernier is one of the few candidates who can claim to be fluently bilingual, and he's probably the most telegenic one after Mr. O'Leary, who is generally perceived to be alongside him at the front of the pack. But in a race in which much of the public attention has been sucked up by the populist stylings of Mr. O'Leary and Kellie Leitch, and candidates such as caucus favourite Andrew Scheer have avoided going out on limbs in hope of emerging as consensus choices, Mr. Bernier seems to be demonstrating there is a market for someone with real conviction in long-held values.

Talking in his office, leaning his long frame forward in his chair, the 54-year-old's youthful enthusiasm for his version of free-market capitalism – his tendency to affably interject before a question had even been fully asked, if he senses any doubt about the wisdom of one of his policies – was so sincere as to be charming in a way other candidates in this race couldn't be.

What is charming before a new leader is selected, though, can be more challenging once he or she takes the job – potentially enough so, in this case, to help explain why despite his rank-and-file support, Mr. Bernier has struggled to win the backing of fellow caucus members.

Mr. Bernier is not a zealot hell-bent on scrapping any and all government intervention. In the interview, for instance, he acknowledged that Canada's regulation of its financial sector works well and said he doesn't plan to change it; he likewise supports current levels of environmental regulation, which he claims are "the right balance" and negate the need for carbon pricing. While promising to overhaul the federal equalization system, he does not wish to do away with it altogether, saying that he "approve[s] of the philosophy … that a poor province would be able to give the same services as a rich province."

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Even so, Mr. Bernier proposes plenty else that would move his party far away from the incremental conservatism of the Harper era, and make him the most economically right-wing leader of a major federal party in modern Canadian history.

His aversion to corporate welfare, which he would replace with much lower business taxes, is such that he said in the interview he would refuse to give subsidies or loans to industries even in the case of an economic crisis like the one in 2008, when the Conservative government helped bail out auto manufacturers. His faith in the free market is strong enough that he would entirely deregulate the telecommunications sector, scrapping consumer protections. His belief in personal responsibility would compel him to do away altogether with regional development agencies, on which Atlantic Canada in particular has long been heavily reliant. His prioritization of clear lines of responsibility would mean that the federal government would leave heath-care policy and funding (through the transfer of tax points) entirely to the provinces.

Globally, while not isolationist militarily, he has little patience for traditional developmental assistance. "I've never seen a poor country being a rich country with foreign aid," he said. "China developed a middle class because they adopted more free market policies. Building roads in Africa – that's not our role."

And that perhaps only scratches the surface of how he would limit the government's scope, because his commitment to dramatically cutting taxes – for businesses early in a four-year smandate and on personal income, including for the highest earners, toward the end of it – would likely require tens of billions of dollars in untold annual spending cuts.

When it's suggested to him that whatever their merits, these sound like the sort of policies that Justin Trudeau's Liberals could use to demonize his party, Mr. Bernier is ready with an answer: Mike Harris.

In fact, he mentions the former Ontario premier (who presumably to his chagrin is backing Mr. O'Leary) in response to quite a few questions, always with the same point: that Mr. Harris's Common Sense Revolution was initially dismissed as far too right-wing to successfully campaign upon, and that by rolling it out long before the election and taking time to explain to Ontarians what it actually meant he was able to prove his doubters wrong.

But if that answers how he thinks he could beat the Liberals, albeit presupposing Canadians will be in as much of an anti-government mood in 2019 as Ontarians were after five years of NDP reign in 1995, it still leaves the question of getting buy-in from his own party, not just before the leadership but potentially after it.

There is a reason most leadership candidates with a serious chance of winning – including the last several to steer a federal party to power, and for that matter also Mr. Harris – do not present detailed general-election platforms during the intra-party campaign. On top of wanting to stay adaptable to changing electoral circumstances, they usually feel the need to have some semblance of a collaborative process afterward to ensure most party members are comfortable with what they will be asked to campaign on.

As he seeks to lead what is very much a coalition party – between old Progressive Conservatives and Reformers, and among economic conservatives and social conservatives and populists – Mr. Bernier is instead suggesting they'll have to adapt to him.

Pressed on how he would keep the Tories' big-tent standing, the socially liberal Mr. Bernier pointed to his promise to allow socially conservative caucus members bring forward private members' bills on matters such as abortion, and to hold free votes on them. He has also rather plainly tried recently to cover his bases with the nativist crowd that has been drawn to Ms. Leitch, by making half-hearted noises about the perils of "radical multiculturalism" and "mass immigration."

But if he might be willing to indulge others' views, when they don't conflict with his own, he is clearly signalling that it will be his way or the highway.

"It's the right platform to bring more freedom and more prosperity to this country," he said. "And that will be my job, and the members of our party's jobs if I'm the leader – to explain our platform to Canadians like Mike Harris did."

With another candidate, this could seem like posturing to keep hard-line leadership supporters energized, before an inevitable softening later. Members of the party establishment may tell themselves just that, if they feel compelled to place him ahead of candidates they have even more trouble abiding on the leadership vote's ranked ballot.

But ideological consistency has already gotten Mr. Bernier further than anyone expected for him. It's hard to imagine he will feel inclined to abandon it, if it gets him further still.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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