You've got to hand it to Maxime Bernier. The Quebec MP became a laughingstock after his premature turn as foreign affairs minister under Stephen Harper ended because his then-girlfriend turned out to have ties to a motorcycle gang and access to his classified briefing notes.
By Canadian standards, that should have been the end of Mr. Bernier's political career. Unlike Americans, we're not typically given to redemption stories. Yet, it's hard not to qualify the astonishingly strong campaign Mr. Bernier has run for the Conservative leadership as just that.
He has started what amounts to a movement of libertarian Tories, who it turns out are more numerous and passionate than anyone could have expected. Granted, there is a certain sophomoric aspect to his all-markets-all-the-time boosterism. Many of his diehard followers are still too young to understand that real-world free markets aren't always pretty, nor all that matters.
Still, Mr. Bernier has exposed the wishy-washiness of his main leadership rivals by taking principled stands on issues that should be central to Canadian conservatism. He'd end supply management in the dairy sector, deregulate an oligopolistic telecom sector, stop subsidizing Bombardier and reform an equalization program that he calls a "poverty trap" for have-not provinces.
Mr. Harper talked the talk of a free-market purist before becoming prime minister, too, but walked the walk of a pragmatist in government. Mr. Bernier, however, is not the tactician Mr. Harper was. He is a conviction politician, a true believer since he developed a passion for libertarian causes during the epic free-trade debate of the late 1980s. He's preached the same gospel unwaveringly ever since.
Yes, as industry minister in the Harper cabinet, he failed to open up the telecom sector to foreign competition and signed off on loans to Bombardier. But one can argue that his clout as a rookie minister was limited and his stint at Industry was too short to effect radical change.
He insists things would be different if he became prime minister – which is why the prospect of him winning the Tory leadership has put the "cartels" he loves to denounce on a war footing.
It's not for nothing that, soon after his arrival in Ottawa in 2006, Mr. Bernier came to be known as "the Albertan from Quebec." His views have long been more aligned with those of the frontier West, hostile to state intervention and adoring of private property, than those of his home province, where the state is seen as the solution to most problems that exist in society. And why not? State intervention has preserved the dominance of Quebec's dairy farmers and more than once saved Bombardier.
If Mr. Bernier wins the leadership, he can thank Alberta. If he loses, he can blame Quebec.
And Quebec's disproportionate weight in choosing the next Tory leader could very well cost him the top Tory job. Leadership rivals Andrew Scheer and Steven Blaney, in particular, have exploited Mr. Bernier's opposition to supply management to sign up new Tory members among Quebec dairy farmers. According to a recent Radio-Canada report, they're aiming to recruit as many as 2,000 anti-Bernier farmers before the March 28 cut-off for selling memberships.
Since each federal riding has equal weight in choosing the leader – whether the riding association has five members or 5,000 – the new Quebec recruits could easily skew the vote. Most Tory riding associations in Quebec can comfortably fit into a Tim Hortons, if not the drive-thru.
Four of Quebec's 12 Tory MPs have lined up behind Mr. Scheer, principally because of Mr. Bernier's stand on supply management. That policy also played a decisive role in star MP Gérard Deltell's move to back Erin O'Toole, whom he called "a pragmatic man who will succeed in uniting Conservatives, attract Canadians to our party and soon govern the country properly."
The implicit message is clear: Mr. Bernier's libertarian extremism would be a barrier to building the big tent the Tories need to win an election. His economic policies would divide the country and turn Quebeckers against the Conservatives even more than they already are.
That is all very true, which is why Tories would be probably mistaken to indulge their libertarian impulses by choosing Mr. Bernier, though not as wrong as they'd be if they chose the cookie-dough flavour-of-the-month that is Kevin O'Leary. At least Mr. Bernier delivers more than empty calories.