Bernier's views actually help Harper

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Sun Media, Friday, February 11, 2011

One thing about Maxime Bernier -- he marches to his own tune, smartly to the right. He represents the conservative wing of the Conservative Party, the libertarians and true believers.

Since his resignation from cabinet three years ago after leaving a briefing book at the home of a girlfriend, Bernier has been nurturing his own brand with speeches, interviews and postings to his website, none of them talking points from the Prime Minister's Office.

He's also been testing a backbench MP's freedom to speak his own mind within the limits of caucus solidarity.

For example, he was conspicuously missing from a photo op last summer of eight Conservative MPs from the Quebec City region, posing in blue Nordiques jerseys and giving the thumbs-up to the idea of the feds joining the provincial and municipal governments to fund a new hockey arena as part of a bid for an NHL franchise.

Two cabinet ministers, Josee Verner and Jean-Pierre Blackburn, were in the shot, which sparked an angry backlash in the rest of Canada. But Bernier, who represents the riding of Beauce -- just east of Quebec City -- was not. And he did not mince his words in opposing government funding for Quebec City, the prospect of which lit up talk radio across the country.

Last October, Bernier was the keynote speaker at a Quebec City meeting of Reseau Liberte, or Freedom Network, where 500 people paid their own way into the room to hear Bernier and others denounce the Quebec model of a debt-ridden state dominated by unions. But Bernier is equally in demand at Tory riding fundraisers in the rest of the country. He's been to Calgary and to Toronto, where the walls of the Albany Club are still standing.

Everywhere Bernier goes, his message is the same -- he's against deficit spending, and in favour of free markets and deregulation. If he'd been asked his views on the Potash Corp. deal last fall, he would have said let the market decide. He probably has the same view on the proposed merger of TMX and LSE.

Bernier pushes the envelope of party solidarity without breaking it. It's actually quite convenient for Stephen Harper to have him around -- he's a voice for the right in a government that needs to hold the centre.

Now Bernier has stirred another hornet's nest by saying Quebec doesn't need Bill 101, the province's language law that restricts access to English-language schools, and as amended in 1994 requires French as the priority language of signs (previously only French signs were allowed before this provision was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1988).

The reaction was predictable -- the separatists in the Parti Quebecois and Bloc Quebecois, and even Quebec Liberals in Ottawa, not to mention the Quebec commentariat, have all denounced him for breaking an uneasy language peace.

His Conservative colleagues ducked the question, saying it was a provincial matter, though the Supremes have begged to differ. Bernier was even flayed for making the comments on a talk show in Halifax rather than Quebec. But he was asked the question in Halifax. Duh!

For many Quebecers, Bill 101 is iconic. For Bernier, it is simply archaic. It was adopted in 1977, in an age before the Internet. And in today's connected world, it is about as effective as the Maginot Line.

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