Maxime Bernier should have done his homework

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National Post online, Thursday, May 29, 2008

Maxime Bernier didnít do his homework, and then he left his homework at his girl friendís house. Or rather, his former girl friendís place.

This says as much about a relationship that ended badly, as it does about Bernierís carelessness in leaving behind a classified briefing book on the NATO summit, and his recklessness in dating a woman who in a previous life had been a bikerís moll.

Had a breakup in interpersonal terms been avoided, a breakdown in security terms could have been prevented.

All Bernier had to do was call Julie Couillard, apologize for leaving sensitive government documents behind in her house and ask if he could send his driver over to pick them up. For her part, she might have made the same call and asked him to send someone over to retrieve them. When couples break up, they have these conversations all the time, as in, ďyou left your Eric Clapton CDs at my place.Ē Or, ďI forgot my DVD of The West Wing: Season Seven, at your place.Ē

They never had the conversation that might have saved Bernier his job as foreign affairs minister. Instead, she had it with the TVA television network, and the revelation of the briefing book cost him his job.

She had a few other things to say, including that she had apprised Bernier from the beginning of their relationship of her previous life as a biker babe, and that he was fully aware of her past. And that he had signed off on the revealing dress she famously wore to his swearing-in as foreign minister at Rideau Hall last summer, suggesting she just wear a jacket over it.

But neither is anyone suggesting that Julie Couillard is Florence Nightingale. Itís no secret that she was shopping her story around, with a reported asking price of $50,000. When there were no takers, she finally sat down with TVA for the half-hour exclusive that triggered Bernierís resignation. Though TVA says she wasnít paid for the interview, the sensational publicity might get her a book deal. This takes her out of the category of women who suffer in silence but retain their dignity, and puts her in the class of those who tell all, and become known as notorious.

As for Bernier, he is left to lick his political and personal wounds, which have been entirely self-inflicted. What had, only a year ago, been a career of exceptional promise, has been derailed, if not destroyed.

As industry minister, he was a rising star in the Conservative government, a coming man, certain to be the leading Quebec candidate in an eventual leadership race to succeed Stephen Harper. He had an economic background, and a comfort level with his portfolio, even if he was too libertarian for a portfolio laden with regulatory issues and business subsidies.

As foreign affairs minister, he lacked a view of the world, and of Canadaís role in it. And he didnít trouble himself with a learning curve, as Peter MacKay had when similarly thrown in at the deep end of the foreign affairs pool. Rather than being guided by his predecessorís experience of hitting the briefing books at night, Bernier simply didnít do his homework, and never mastered his files. A series of minor blunders, such as getting the Haitian presidentís name wrong, could be overlooked. Musing to reporters about replacing the governor of Kandahar, an intrusion into the sovereign affairs of Afghanistan, was another matter. It was then that Harper lost all patience with Bernier. Julie Couillardís revelation about the briefing book was the tipping point that led to Harperís preemptive announcement of Bernierís departure from cabinet.

And now there are questions about Harperís own judgment in putting Bernier at Foreign Affairs in the first place. As well as conflicting timeline stories about when Bernier learned about Couillardís past, when they really broke up and why the missing briefing book went unnoticed for more than a month.

And in political terms, Bernier was the Conservative partyís leading light in Quebec City and eastern Quebec, a crucial region for Harperís hopes to graduate to a majority in the next election. Instead, Bernier will be following another road home to the Beauce, in the hopes his voters will give him personal and political redemption at the next election. Fortunately for Bernier, in our Westminster tradition, there is that road back.

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