Mia Rabson and Janice Dickson,
OTTAWA — Maverick Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, whose open defiance has been a major headache for the Opposition Conservatives, is quitting the party to start his own political movement — and he’s not pulling his punches.
Bernier, who narrowly lost the Tory leadership to rival Andrew Scheer, says he feels the party has abandoned its true ideals by refusing to end corporate subsidies or abolish the supply management system for poultry and dairy products.
He made the bombshell announcement during a news conference on Parliament Hill.
“I have come to realize over the past year that this party is too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed,” Bernier said as he read a lengthy statement that savaged both the party and its current leadership.
“The whole strategy of the party is to play identity politics, pander to various interest groups and buy votes with promises, just like the Liberals…. Andrew Scheer keeps talking about his “positive Conservative vision.” But nobody knows what that vision is.
“The Conservative Party has abandoned conservatives. It does not represent them anymore. And it has nothing of substance to offer Canadians looking for a political alternative.”
Scheer, who is in Halifax for the start of the Conservative policy convention, has a news conference of his own scheduled for 1:30 p.m. ET.
Bernier’s decision comes just as the Conservative policy convention is getting underway in Halifax and follows months of turmoil — much of it fomented on Twitter — between himself, Scheer and many Conservative MPs who felt he was jeopardizing their chances in the next election.
Bernier’s insistence on ending supply management, in defiance of Conservative policy, and his recent reflections about the perils of “extreme multiculturalism” had Scheer distancing himself from Bernier and his comments.
Alberta MP and immigration critic Michelle Rempel all but challenged Bernier to pick a side earlier this week.
On Thursday, he did just that.
“Do we want to emphasize our ethnic and religious differences, and exploit them to buy votes, as the Liberals are doing? Or emphasize what unites us and the values that can guarantee social cohesion?” he said, accusing the party of fearing a backlash over opposing immigration.
“Instead of leading the debate and pushing back against all the unfair accusations, Andrew Scheer chose to avoid the controversy. He and several of my colleagues disavowed me. They are so afraid of criticism by the left and the media that they prefer to let down millions of supporters across the country who would like us to tackle this issue.”
Conservative caucus members gathered in Halifax had been planning to give Bernier a piece of their mind — a plan that went out the window as soon as Bernier summoned journalists to his news conference in Ottawa earlier Thursday.
As recently as three weeks ago, Bernier told The Canadian Press in an interview that he was planning to run for the Conservatives in the next election despite Scheer’s decision earlier this summer to strip him of his portfolio in the Tory shadow cabinet.
The news appeared to catch most Conservatives completely by surprise, including some who supported Bernier in the leadership race.
Ontario MP Tony Clement says he wasn’t sure what Bernier’s decision would mean for the Conservatives, but it likely won’t end well for the longtime MP from Beauce, near Quebec City.
“History teaches us that people who quit are replaceable and forgettable,” Clement said.
How a new right-of-centre party will impact the political scene in Canada depends a lot on how much money Bernier can raise and how many Tory supporters and donors he takes with him. It also depends on how many candidates he recruits.
Steven Fletcher, a Bernier supporter and former Conservative cabinet minister who was recently denied the chance to run for the party again in the next election, said he thinks Bernier won’t have trouble getting a following.
“There are a lot of people that will support Bernier,” and not just in Quebec, Fletcher said.
“In Winnipeg, Bernier won every (leadership) ballot by a convincing margin. This is amazing for a guy from Quebec, but his policies around aerospace and supply management have a lot of support in Winnipeg.”
Several Conservatives have felt for months Bernier has been contining to fight the leadership race, even though it ended in May 2017 when he lost by the narrowest of margins.
The problems started to come to a head last spring, when he released a promotional chapter of his forthcoming book that accused Scheer of pandering to “fake Conservatives” in Quebec during their leadership battle.
When he later posted the chapter on his personal website, Scheer fired him from the Tory shadow cabinet — but also protected him from a caucus revolt by asking MPs who were trying to vote Bernier out to stand down.
The tensions ramped up again in recent days as Bernier took to Twitter to criticize Canada’s immigration policies and what he called “extreme multiculturalism,” which he said he believes risks ruining the Canadian fabric.
Bernier has said he believes immigration in Canada is at “too high a level,” and is in danger of becoming a “burden” to Canadians instead of an economic boon.
“It becomes essentially a big-government policy of social engineering for ideological and electoral purposes,” he wrote.