Andrew Coyne: There is room in Canadian politics for Maxime Bernier’s worthy experiment

In principle, there is room for a new party in Canadian politics; arguably, there is a need for one.

That the established parties have tended to pander to narrow and particular interests, rather than the broader public interest, is well documented, as is the result: an ever-expanding state devoted almost wholly to redistributing income, not from rich to poor, but from taxpayers to well-organized and well-cultivated client groups (notably the state’s own employees). In the same way the state redistributes from consumers to producers, from west to east, young to old, and so on, in the service of neither efficiency nor justice nor even raw numbers but just whoever frightens politicians the most.

Which over time — people learn — has come to include everybody. We subsidize everything that moves in this country, and charge ourselves higher taxes to pay for it, then demand more subsidies to offset the burden of taxes. And the fruit of all this frantic attempt to redistribute from everybody to everybody? A nation brimming with grievance and resentment, every part of the country convinced the rest are making out at its expense.

A party that proposed to end the money-go-round — to wean the country’s business class, in particular, off the public teat, to shut down the “regional development” spigots and bust up the cartels that, behind our protectionist walls, are permitted to genteelly pick our pockets — would therefore be a signal addition to our politics. If it chose to frame this critique not as a fairly straightforward application of Economics 101 but as a radical determination to govern “for all Canadians,” so be it.

And if it made life difficult for the established parties, so much the better. The market for ideas thrives on competition and choice as much as any other. The cartelization of our economy is in part a reflection of the cartelization of our politics. A more robustly conservative party, in particular, less burdened by the Conservatives’ crippling self-doubt, would be a welcome addition, even if I don’t like all of its ideas: millions of Canadians do, and it is wrong that they should go unrepresented.

But when I say a party, I mean, well, a party. The “People’s Party” that Maxime Bernier unveiled Friday was notably ill-supplied with either. A party, even one that does not preface its name with “people,” is traditionally expected to furnish a few; the term is usually considered to imply the participation of several persons, or at least more than one.

Instead, standing in for the people was just Max, alone on a stage. Besides the vaguely Euro-sounding name — and not in a good way — and a logo that appeared not so much designed as typed, there was little to indicate this was anything more than the personal vanity project it seemed when Bernier first announced it, last month.

Who will be the leader of this People’s Party? Why, Bernier, as it happens. Who elected him? Well, he wasn’t: he just is. (Perhaps the Lady of the Lake held aloft Excalibur?) And what are its policies? They are those of its leader, at least for now — the platform is “still being finalized,” a note on the party website advises — the same as he campaigned on in the recent Conservative leadership race.

Well, fine. You have to start somewhere. Bernier very nearly won that campaign: there’s obviously a market for what he’s selling, at least within the conservative movement. Presumably his leadership team will make up the nucleus of the new party’s organization. In time it can begin to tap donors, attract members, recruit candidates. Who knows? Perhaps, rather than participate in choosing a leader or developing a platform, what people are really looking for is a turnkey operation, where both have already been decided.

Maxime Bernier speaks about his new political party during a news conference in Ottawa, Sept. 14, 2018.

Political identities are fluid nowadays. Who’d heard of Emmanuel Macron’s party, En Marche, when it was founded, a year before he was elected president of France? Who knew the venerable Republican Party could be taken over by Donald Trump and his threadbare organization? Besides, Bernier doesn’t have to win to make a difference: all he has to do is force the other parties, the Conservatives in particular, to adjust their policies.

It’s an interesting experiment. Bernier is plainly seeking to harness populism, notably its skepticism toward immigration, in the service of his innate libertarianism. That combination is not often tried, for the simple reason that the two are more naturally opposed than aligned.

Populism usually takes the form of distributing state goodies — “giving the people what they want.” Libertarianism is about taking them way. Populist leaders are generally unburdened by principle or convictions. Bernier promises he will be scrupulously guided by them. Where populism is generally suspicious of constraints upon the leader’s ability to deliver for “the people “ — witness Doug Ford’s recent show of disdain for the Charter — libertarianism is all about constraining government power and discretion, in favour of the “spontaneous order” of the market.

It’s an uncertain mix: and yet, if he can pull it off, he may be able to make libertarianism saleable, in a way it has not proved to be in the past. Dry lectures on the virtues of privatizing the sidewalks do not tend to exercise all but the converted. But a broader narrative of defending the public interest (“the people”) from the combined assault of a thousand interest groups — of limited, rules-based government as the only kind that truly serves the many, rather than the few — may have legs. Perhaps our Canadian genius for resentment can be made to work for good, rather than for evil.

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