“Emperor Max” is No Solution

In a National Post column published August 31, Maxime Bernier lays out his reasons for leaving the Conservatives and forming his own federal party. Urging Canadians to learn about public choice theory, Bernier claims that Canadian politics has been hijacked by interest groups, whose lobbying has “corrupted” both the Conservative and Liberal parties.

Bernier’s stated goal is nothing less than “systematically reversing the dynamic described by public choice theory”.

But what new approach does Bernier propose to help his party accomplish this task?

Bernier’s non-solution

Unfortunately, unless Mr. Bernier is keeping something up his sleeve, his solution is no solution at all. In his National Post column, he promises to:

“[take] positions based on principles I believe in and that accord with what I think is the public interest; and [resist] pressure from interest groups seeking favours, despite the short-term political cost”.

First of all, this approach is not “systematic”. There is nothing here that involves a system, a structure, or a process. Rather, Bernier’s solution appears to rest entirely on his attributes as an individual: his ability to perceive the public interest, to stand on his principles in the midst of pressure, and to endure short-term political sacrifices for long-term success.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Bernier is capable of all this, and truly is incorruptible. That takes care of one candidate—what about the other 337?

Where does Bernier expect to find several hundred conservatives who are capable of meeting a standard which, by his own judgment, was too much for his former colleagues?

Does he propose some revolutionary new recruitment and vetting process? No, he gives us this:

“… with the Internet, it is now much easier and less costly to find relevant information and mobilize around an issue. A small group of motivated citizens can potentially have as much influence as a lobby group spending millions of dollars.”

The first sentence is certainly true, but ease of organizing has nothing to do with preventing corruption. Corruption, after all, is what happens after you get organized and become an organization worth corrupting.

The second sentence in the quote above might be true at times (and often isn’t), but if anything, this seems to work against Bernier rather than in his favour. After all, if the goal is to resist lobbying by small special interest groups, would that not include “small groups of motivated citizens” advocating for his party to adopt fringe policies? With these groups now able to organize via the internet, doesn’t that just put more pressure on Bernier and his candidates?

Emperor Max?

Perhaps Bernier’s plan is not to recruit an infallible slate of candidates, but rather, to make himself Emperor of his party, able to rectify moral weakness by punishing or expelling any who stray from his chosen principles.

Isn’t that just another version of what he claims to be fighting against?

A single person, after all, is the ultimate special interest group. And if that’s true, then an entire party yoked to the judgment of a single person is a special interest group on steroids.

To be fair, I have no reason to believe that Bernier intends to crown himself. But by giving no other details of his plan, he certainly leaves the impression that his party will be built with his individual qualities as the foundation.

Canada, in fact, has had many federal parties built around a single, charismatic leader. You likely haven’t heard of most of them, and there’s a reason for that—they fly no higher than their leader can carry them.

When leader-centric parties do achieve success, they never do so for longer than that leader’s term. If Bernier hopes to defeat corruption, rather than merely hold it at bay for the duration of his leadership, then the Emperor’s crown will not be enough.

The real challenge is systematic

To build a party that is able to resist corruption over the long term, Bernier needs to address some of the real-life weak points that allow corruption to take hold in a political party:

  • The policy development process. If the process is unregulated, with nothing to ensure fair and informed debate, interest groups can use superior resources or pressure tactics to manipulate the vote.
  • The tension between caucus and members. Party members vote on policy, but MP’s vote in Parliament. If their interests can’t be kept properly aligned, a showdown will occur, and infighting, expulsions, and defections will be the result.
  • Centralization of power. Narrowing control of the party to a single person, with all of their imperfections, makes it weaker and more corruptible, not stronger.
  • Our voting system. When first-past-the-post takes a 5-10% difference in public opinion and magnifies that into the difference between a majority government and third-party status, the pressure for a party to capture every possible vote more easily overwhelms the desire to stand on principles.

Perhaps Bernier does, in fact, intend to form a party with a democratic and evidence-based policy process, a well-articulated relationship between caucus and members, decentralized authority with checks and balances, and a policy commitment to voting reform.

With his announcement and follow-up column, he has made no indication that this is the case. If or when he publishes his new party’s constitution and policy book, we’ll find out for certain.

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