Bernier didn't fly too close to sun - he never got off the ground

It's sad when a career of exceptional promise is derailed, but it's his own fault

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Only a year ago Maxime Bernier, as industry minister, was a rising star in the Harper cabinet.

On the hustings, he was an attractive figure - personable, good looking and well turned out. In the House, he was a scourge of the Bloc Québécois, constantly taunting them for their irrelevance. Whenever Stephen Harper stepped aside, it was clear Bernier would be the Quebec candidate in the next Conservative leadership race. "The sky's the limit," Harper himself told Bernier during a favourable one-year performance review.

When it came time for a cabinet shuffle last summer, Bernier was an obvious candidate to succeed Peter MacKay as foreign-affairs minister. The world would be coming to Quebec City for its year-long 400th-anniversary celebrations in 2008. And Bernier could be a Quebecer on the world stage at the United Nations, in Washington, at NATO summits, in Afghanistan. His role would be representational, but his mission was political - to leverage Conservatives prospects for a majority through Quebec.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Bernier might have been considered a bit too libertarian for the industry ministry, which is top heavy with regulatory issues and handouts to corporate Canada. But no one ever thought he wasn't smart. And no one accused him of putting a foot wrong.

And then, in his brief tenure at foreign affairs, he never seemed to put a foot right. It wasn't just that he lacked a view of the world, or Canada's place in it, he didn't understand his own role as foreign minister, and he didn't do the work.

It isn't that, like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun, got his wings burned, and crashed. He never got off the ground.

A foreign minister has only one client, the prime minister. But there is a much broader clientele, the policy stakeholders, interest groups and voters who care how Canada is represented on the world stage.

And then there is the Department of Foreign Affairs itself. It represents institutional memory. It regards itself as the trustee of Canada's foreign-policy legacy - not for nothing is its headquarters named for Lester B. Pearson. Its officers regard themselves as the best and the brightest, and in many ways they are, even though the department can be institutionally stupid.

The role is simple - Canada and the world. But the files are incredibly complex, from Canada-U.S. relations, to the UN, NATO, the Commonwealth, la francophonie, the Mideast, the new Europe, emerging economic giants like China and India, the environment and global warming, and not least, our difficult nation-building mission in Afghanistan.

Foreign-affairs officials instinctively want to help, and be proud of, their minister. But if their advice isn't asked, and they're embarrassed by their minister, they will either turn on him or allow him to fall on his face.

Bernier can't say he wasn't warned, especially by friends who urged him to do his homework, and learn his files. MacKay was a good role model - after a very shaky start in foreign affairs, he buckled down and learned his job. "It's like studying for finals every night," he told a friend at one point. The department rallied to support him.

Bernier never mastered his brief. He seldom took advice from his own officials, and frequently bristled at being kept on a short leash by his client's staff at the Prime Minister's Office.

And he committed a series of gaffes and blunders that spoke to a lack of judgment, preparation and message discipline. Never mind that he got the Haitian president's name wrong, or that he could seldom answer a question in the House without referring to his briefing notes. That's learning-curve stuff.

But speculating, on an April visit to Afghanistan, that the governor of Kandahar might be replaced because of corruption, was blatant interference in the affairs of a sovereign country. A foreign minister should understand that. Then last week, he promised a C-17 plane to deliver relief to Myanmar, when none was available. He was not speaking from talking points, but on his own.

And then there was the girlfriend, from the moment Julie Couillard stepped from the car at Rideau Hall, to her explosive interview on TVA Monday night, when among other things she revealed Bernier left classified documents for a NATO summit at her home in Laval. This was in April, a month after they had supposedly broken up.

Already likely to be moved at the next shuffle, this sealed his fate with Harper, who pre-emptively announced Bernier's resignation two hours before the interview aired.

It is always sad when a career of exceptional promise is derailed, but Bernier's plight is entirely of his own making.

Is there a way back to cabinet for Max Bernier? The answer, in the British parliamentary tradition, is yes. When a minister is forced to resign from cabinet, he is considered redeemed if re-elected by his own voters. Modern precedents include Francis Fox who returned to cabinet in 1980 after winning his seat with an impressive majority. Bernier won the Beauce by a huge majority of 26,000 votes in the last election. His road to political redemption lies straight through the Beauce.

 
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