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When Stephen Harper resigned, I, and many of my libertarian colleagues, saw an opportunity for a Canadian Ron Paul to emerge.
We wanted a mainstream libertarian conservative who was against foreign interventionism, central banking, corporate bailouts, government-issued marriage permits, the income tax and the war on drugs.
Someone who supported property rights, free trade, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, sound money, laissez-faire, and a strictly limited government.
We immediately thought of Maxime Bernier.
He had written prolifically about free market economics and criticized the central banking cartel from an Austrian economics perspective. He regularly quoted Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard who are highly regarded in libertarian circles.
He refused to call himself a libertarian but didn’t reject the label when others called him that, and that was good enough for us, we knew he was secretly one of us.
Maybe we could convince him to come out of the closet.
Capitalizing on the hard work of libertarians
We reached out to Max and invited him to Calgary to introduce him to a number of individuals and groups and show him that he’d have western support if he threw his name in the ring to run as Leader of the CPC.
I had this vision of standing beside Bernier on the national debate stage and making him look like a moderate on liberty the way Elizabeth May makes Trudeau look like a moderate on climate action and the NDP make him look like a moderate on wealth redistribution.
This was an opportunity to shift the Overton window, to move conservatism from being “progressivism driving the speed limit” towards a conservatism that could actually shrink government.
The fact that Max nearly won the CPC leadership on a fairly economically libertarian platform was a testament to the work libertarians have done to popularize liberty. Turns out there are many people that think these ideas matter and Max promised to be their champion, but he lost.
Max has written that he lost because of fake conservatives brought in by big dairy. The fact that ballots were immediately destroyed, no audit was done, and there was a vote discrepancy bigger than Scheers margin of victory led many in Berniers camp to speculate that something shady happened.
I always assumed that corruption is just part of pragmatic politics. If your goal is to get votes you have to reflect the culture, and that requires setting aside your own philosophy and beliefs in order to articulate that which will get you the most votes.
This requires dishonesty by either lying outright or at the very least withholding your honest worldview, and I think the most successful politicians lie to themselves. This lack of integrity is a necessary sacrifice for the “greater good” if you’re a pragmatist. So it’s no stretch to see how easily one can justify cheating.
Inviting Max to make history
Max’s loss was reminiscent of Ron Paul having establishment Republicans working to undermine his 2012 Presidential run. Those close to him spoke of the pain in Max’s eyes. I can imagine that he felt betrayed far more acutely than even his loyalists did. Here he had played by their rules for over two terms in office.
He was a team player and supported all the pragmatic CPC policies; corporate bail-outs, bombing Libya, extending the Afghanistan mission, erosion of privacy (C-51), Cannabis prohibition, supply management, etc.
He kept his opinions well within the 3X5 index card of approved establishment doctrine.
Max watched what happened when colleagues like Brent Rathgeber didn’t toe the party line and tried to advance principled bill that would establish a modicum of transparency and accountability in government. For a libertarian to swallow their integrity and continue for two and a half terms like this they must believe that the establishment can eventually reward principle if you just play by their rules.
This defeat must have been deeply unsettling on many levels.
Government is downstream from culture
Immediately after his loss I reached out to him to thank him for running. I also publicly invited him to make history and take my spot as Leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada.
He reportedly watched the video over a dozen times. Libertarians are on the right side of history and he knows it. It’s a philosophy that is growing in popularity. This was an opportunity to take his place in the pantheon of libertarian icons like Ron Paul and take Canada’s liberty movement to the next level.
Andrew Breitbart is credited with articulating the idea that government is downstream from culture. The truth is that libertarians have operated under this assumption for decades.
While pragmatists have operated under the assumption that winning government is what matters we have been grinding it out in the trenches of meme warfare for decades poo-pooing the naivety of politicians who think that winning elections is what matters. Principle is the only practical thing in the end.
It’s the only thing that challenges orthodoxy and shifts culture.
As far as I could tell Bernier had two choices; he could continue to be pragmatic and toe the party line and be a good establishment team player or he could dump the zeroes and get with heroes and put principle before pragmatism.
Max was politely non-committal in the conversations we had over the next year. He expressed hope that he could continue to make changes within the CPC and that maybe leadership would adopt some of his ideas into the platform.
We were set to debate whether the Libertarian Party or the Conservative Party was the best vehicle for advancing liberty in Canada at our convention in 2018.
He called me a few weeks before the convention and said he couldn’t debate the topic in good conscience. He was given the impression that the CPC was going to do the pragmatic thing and use polling data to develop their platform which left little room for his ideas.
He sounded beaten down. Again, I invited him to make a home in the Libertarian Party and consider making history and again he remained politely non-committal.
In August Maxime started to make some noise that was clearly aimed at forcing CPC leadership to take action. They weren’t the kind of tweets I’d have preferred like “taxation is theft” or “end all foreign intervention” or “time to end the drug war” or “time to legalize concealed carry.” Instead the tweets took aim at the “cult of diversity” and “extreme multiculturalism”.
This was a pragmatic move for someone starting a new political party. After all, according to pragmatist logic, liberty comes from getting votes and the most vocal group of motivated voters that nobody seems to be speaking for are populists.
Friends of Liberty express an urge to merge
I was obviously disappointed when he launched his own party with an unfortunate name. It was libertarians who brought Max to the dance and that rallied to support him and this felt like a snub, nevertheless, I called and congratulated him. Later a fan of both parties made a compelling case for a merger.
Max would get the ability to fundraise with tax receipts immediately and we could make sure the party wasn’t co-opted by establishment conservatives, or people who thought immigrants were a bigger threat than Ottawa, and we could ensure the party remained a principled party focused on liberty. I was also very much looking forward to stepping back from leading the party.
I’ve sacrificed my career and my pension to advance liberty and was ready to hand off the baton to someone who had more capacity so I could rest easy for a while.
Some excitement built as Max and I began discussing a possible merger. I knew that I would need a supermajority of votes from our members and that they would want to see a clear statement of party principles and a constitution.
The PPC platform is pretty milquetoast as far as libertarian platforms go and it would need to be attached to a clear statement of party principle to be palatable to membership. Max agreed to send me those documents the following week but didn’t follow through and didn’t return my calls. So the merger was dead and I still don’t know why. It may have been the fact that in a radio interview I publicly expressed my distaste for the party name (“People’s Party”? Really?) and suggested I’d be interested in running against him for Leader. I thought that a leadership race might ensure the party was on the right track and give Max an opportunity to atone for or at least address his 2.5 terms of sinning against liberty.
Maybe this should have been my first indication that he was still a pragmatist. I would have been to Max in the PPC the way Max was to Scheer in the CPC, an inconvenient Jiminy Cricket pushing for more principle and liberty.
It’s difficult to be pragmatic when your conscience is vocal. But I chalked the failed merge up to putting my foot in my mouth on the radio and being a terrible diplomat rather than Max acting like an establishment guy, like Scheer.
“Star” candidate a LibCon?
Now I’m not so sure. There are predictable hit pieces that quote disgruntled former PPC organizers and supporters, and those can be taken with a grain of salt. But what about the hard core Max loyalists, personal friends who quit their jobs to work for Max because they believed him to be a champion for liberty and are no longer with the party?
Clinton Desveaux was a close personal friend of Bernier and quit his career to work for Max establishing EDAs across the country as the party’s founding Executive Director, working 16 hour days for months. He recently parted ways with the party for unknown reasons (I assume a NDA has muzzled him) and tweeted that he’s open to vote for any party at this point.
At the same time we are seeing principled party loyalists and founders leaving we are watching a crop of pragmatists emerge. Johanne Mennie is the new Executive Director of the PPC and is being maligned by many PPC detractors as a globalist shill and a leftist with connections to Tides and George Soros. While I doubt this is a fair characterization we can be sure she is a pragmatist and a career bureaucrat, which means plenty of experience dealing with unscrupulous types. The kind of person that can help get votes.
Meanwhile, and symptomatic of the shift from professed principles to pragmatism, we come to Stephen Fletcher an MLA from Manitoba and recently announced PPC candidate. He is a career politician who was kicked out of his provincial party caucus and rejected as a candidate by the CPC.
He brags about securing billions for green infrastructure while serving as a Harper cabinet minister, has said that he wants Ottawa to use the NEB to force Alberta to buy hydroelectricity from the Manitoba government, supports the dynamic policy duo of state-assisted suicide and default state ownership of your organs, and recently introduced a bill to reserve seats for Indigenous people in the Manitoba Legislature.
Not sure how well this is going to jibe with libertarians in the party or social conservatives or Max’s own rhetoric against race-based policies, but he has demonstrated an ability to get votes in the past. A pragmatic choice, even if he is indistinguishable from the “LibCons” the PPC purports to fight.
Adam Richardson is another founding PPC organizer and long-time Max booster that parted ways with the party in February. He confirmed to me that his enthusiasm for Max waned when Bernier was presented with a platform suggestion to rid Canada of cannabis supply management and rejected it. This too was just another pragmatic act — signalling that you might be open to loosening the legal regime around drugs would probably not play well with populists or social conservatives who are worried about cultural degradation.
Pragmatism informs much of Max’s policy. His policy completely avoids drug legalization even though criminality and the opiate crisis is clearly driven by prohibition. There is nothing on monetary and banking reform even though central banking robs us and drives a harmful business cycle. His foreign policy position entails sending troops to the middle east to fight terrorism even though this policy has done nothing but nurture terrorism, open slave markets, a migrant crisis and made the world more dangerous for Canadians. He continually says he respects our constitution which codifies equalization payments, has weak free speech protection, enumerates no right to bear arms, and doesn’t codify property rights. These are all issues that principled libertarians care deeply about that he either gets wrong or avoids.
Even his latest policy on climate change is lacklustre. To sum it up; there is no climate catastrophe therefore we don’t need government intervention. It leaves one with the impression that if catastrophe is coming his instinct is for more government. It’s like arguing, “That person doesn’t have influenza therefore we don’t have to euthanize them.” The obviously insane assumption is that killing is the best cure for influenza. Arguing about whether someone has influenza is irrelevant.
I’d prefer something like; if climate catastrophe is coming we need more liberty and less government immediately. Challenge statists on their insane assumptions rather than argue about climate science.
Morphing into what you mock
This is one of the problems with pragmatism. It paints you into a corner. Now that Max has secured support from populists who see immigration, cheap labour and automation as existential threats, how is he going to be able to speak like the economically literate leader Canada needs?
Populists tend to be economic protectionists. He is going to have to tone down talk on free trade and appease collective economic ignorance. If he achieves conventional success, eventually his policies will look no different than the CPC running polls to figure out what they believe.
As Brent Rathgeber resigned from CPC caucus he quipped, “We have morphed into what we once mocked.” This is what pragmatism does. It takes the spicy Reform Party and turns it into CPC pablum, suitable for mass consumption. I don’t want to give the impression that I think any of these people are bad. They are following the same idea that good people in the CPC are following. The same idea that good voters follow when instead of voting for a party that most closely embodies their values they vote against their worst fears.
Every election we are told that “this is the most important election in our lifetime.” This election is no different. If we don’t vote out Trudeau, all will be lost. “It would be great to be principled, but we can’t risk that this time around.” So the government grows no matter who is in power.
The sad fact is that the establishment is fed by the pragmatism of the people. We are the swamp.
And this is the tragedy of Mad Max. He seems to buy the establishment idea that most Canadians, including populists, believe (or at least act like they do): that culture is downstream from government rather than the other way around.
He could have become a juggernaut for cultural change by adopting a principled hardline Ron Paul style liberty message that exposes the hypocrisy and internal contradictions of status quo thought but instead he is adopting a pragmatic approach of trying to reflect culture to get votes.
He could have ignited hearts and minds and inspired people the way he inspired Clinton Desveaux, Adam Richardson and many others to drop everything and follow him. There is a large cohort of Canadians like me who will never vote for the lesser evil and who think the ideas that make up civilization are far more important than the politicians that fill the seats these ideas create. Instead, we have insipid pragmatism wrapped in a populist package.
The problem is there’s already a pragmatic option for people petrified by the prospect of another term for Trudeau. The CPC could field almost any suite of policies and win at this point. Ideas and policies don’t matter to the pragmatic voter. This explains why the PPC is polling so low right now.
This leads to my final concern. Pragmatists tend to disappear when they lose and I think that would be a shame. There are people who have sacrificed a lot for the PPC because they believed that it stands for principle.
The PPC doesn’t appear to have a statement of principles, a constitution, bylaws, a mechanism for implementing policy, an elected board, or a mechanism for electing a Leader. Is this a Maxime Bernier corporation or a political party? What happens if Max gets in a plane crash? What happens if Max loses? Does he stick around and grind it out? Who picks up the torch for the PPC, how does that happen and what exactly does the PPC stand for without Max?
Tragically, it is already difficult to discern what the party stands for with Max.