Hébert: Finding Bernier a role may not be easy

One of Andrew Scheer’s first and most delicate assignments as Conservative leader will be to find a proper place in his team for runner-up Maxime Bernier. That may be easier said than done.

That Scheer has an interest in keeping Bernier happy is not really debatable.

The Beauce MP may not have a lot of diehard fans in the Conservative caucus. But the fact remains that about one in two party members supported Bernier for the leadership, including a majority in Alberta and Quebec.

In Bernier’s home province, the big news out of Saturday’s leadership vote was his defeat, not Scheer’s victory.

Bernier is one of the party’s most valuable players on the fundraising circuit. None of his caucus rivals, including Scheer, came close to matching the amount of money his campaign collected over the past year.

By all accounts he will not be an easy fit for one of the leading economic critic roles. Beyond his understandable disappointment at the outcome of the leadership vote, Bernier has never been good at following a party script.

This is a politician who has admitted to having had decidedly mixed feelings about being assigned the prestigious foreign affairs post in Stephen Harper’s government.

Bernier would rather have had a portfolio that allowed him a larger measure of independence from the Prime Minister’s Office. And in his time out of the cabinet, he did not always toe the government line.

He has also spent the past year promoting policies that are unlikely to be part of Scheer’s election game plan.

Would, for instance, the new Conservative leader want a finance critic who would like the federal government to replace the health transfer with tax points so as to leave the future of medicare entirely at the discretion of the provinces?

And who would push for the federal approach to equalization to be revisited so as to give the have-not provinces more “incentives” to grow their economies?

The party spent the Harper decade ensuring that it did not get labelled an advocate of a two-tier health-care system. And few issues have more potential to bring the political class of Atlantic Canada to the barricades than a debate over equalization.

Or would Scheer, whose victory was facilitated by a lobby of dairy farmers, be comfortable with Bernier as an international trade critic, after the latter has urged Canada, on the record, to do away with its supply management system in exchange for a deal with the U.S. on softwood lumber?

Could Bernier serve as industry critic if his long-held contention that the federal government should get out of corporate welfare is not Conservative policy? At the time of the global financial crisis, Harper’s decision to bail out the Ontario auto industry went a long way to pave the road to a Conservative majority in the 2011 election. And Bombardier, for all its woes, is still an apple of the eye of many Quebec voters.

One job Bernier is unlikely to be vying for is that of Quebec lieutenant. He has never had much of a collegial relationship with his Quebec colleagues, and he is a polarizing figure in his home province.

The quasi-certainty that his former rival will not want the lead political role in Quebec should come as a relief to Scheer, for rarely has a Conservative leader had more need for a bridge-building lieutenant.

The new leader’s profile in Quebec is virtually non-existent. His social conservative roots will not stand him in good stead in a province whose collective take on issues, such as abortion rights, same-sex marriage and medically assisted suicide, is decidedly liberal.

The notion that Scheer is a smiling version of Harper will do little to commend him to an electorate that has consistently given the former prime minister and his policies the cold shoulder.

The Conservatives may have won a majority government in 2011 with only minimal Quebec support, but that was back in the days when the province had soured on the Liberals.

Over the Harper years, the Bloc Québécois, and then the New Democrats, dominated the province. Today the first is in an irreversible tailspin and the second is about to trade a leader with a big Quebec profile for a successor with a much smaller one.

If the Conservatives want to return to power, they must prevent Justin Trudeau from rebuilding the Quebec fortress that ensured his father’s political longevity.

On that score Scheer has his work cut out for him.

The last Léger Marketing poll, done shortly before the leadership vote, gave the Liberals a 40-point lead on the Conservatives in Quebec.

The gap increased by three points under the tentative scenario of a Scheer leadership victory.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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