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Nothing but a ‘vanity project’: People’s Party of Canada is likely dead, experts say

Nothing but a ‘vanity project’: People’s Party of Canada is likely dead, experts say
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In the lead-up to this week’s federal election, media outlets around the world wondered whether right-wing fringe candidate Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party represented an expansion of the populist, nationalist and anti-establishment sentiment sweeping the United States and Europe.

“A ‘Mad Max’ candidate offers a far-right jolt to the Canadian election,” read a headline in the New York Times. “Can populism become popular in Canada?” asked the BBC.

While Bernier, who lost in his own riding of Beauce, Que., insisted in a concession speech that the movement was “only getting started,” experts said the People’s Party likely would not survive.

“The PPC is rather easily seen now as a vanity project of Bernier’s, and as a very ineffectual attempt to come up with a latter-day Reform Party challenge to more moderate conservatism,” said David Laycock, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University.

Bernier, who held the Beauce riding since 2006, had served under the Conservative banner until last year when he narrowly lost the leadership contest to Andrew Scheer and then formed his own party. On Monday night, he garnered 28 per cent of the vote and placed second to Conservative Richard Lehoux.

Some of the party’s other higher-profile candidates, such as Renata Ford, widow of the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, and Lee Harding, former Saskatchewan director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, barely made a dent — coming in fourth in their respective ridings of Etobicoke North and Cypress Hills-Grasslands and capturing only 2.8 per cent of the vote.

Bernier blamed “nasty and shameless attacks” from opponents for the PPC’s poor showing. (Late last week, The Globe and Mail reported that strategist Warren Kinsella and his firm Daisy Group had been hired by the Conservatives to “seek and destroy” Bernier’s party and portray its supporters as racist. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer refused to confirm or deny the allegation. Bernier filed a complaint with Elections Canada over the affair).

But experts suggested it was the party’s policies that did them in. While certain aspects of the PPC platform — support for libertarian principles, small government and a repeal of the carbon tax — dovetailed with the Conservatives, the party’s stances on immigration were controversial.

Bernier vowed to repeal the Multiculturalism Act and severely curtail immigration levels. Stealing from Donald Trump’s playbook, he even suggested building a fence along parts of the Canada-U.S. border to thwart irregular migration. Critics accused the party of providing a home to people peddling hate.

“Canadian voters don’t and won’t soon support the kind of overt racism that Bernier courted,” Laycock said. “Comparative public opinion data on immigration and multiculturalism show that while Canada isn’t the multicultural utopia that some commentators contend, Canadians don’t feel comfortable with explicit attacks on minority groups, and value ethnic diversity far more than most Europeans do.”

Frankly, populists would have used the absence of coverage ... as a way to suggest that the media is overtaken by liberal interests

If Bernier had discussed multiculturalism in a more nuanced way with specific policy proposals, his messaging may have resonated more, said Tamara Small, a political science professor at the University of Guelph.

“The idea of multiculturalism is very important to people — definitely in English Canada,” she said.

Bernier had initially not been invited to take part in televised leaders’ debates, but that decision was reversed by former governor general David Johnston, head of the Leaders’ Debate Commission, who cited the party’s  “organizational capacity,” legitimate chance of electing more than one candidate and the media attention the party had received.

But Laycock and Small said the party received more news coverage than it deserved.

“I can’t think of a party in recent history that has polled at less than 3 per cent that got the amount of attention that he got, frankly,” Small said.

But if the media had ignored the PPC during the campaign, they would have been accused of not giving attention to the broad spectrum of political parties, said Bessma Momani, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo.

“Frankly, populists would have used the absence of coverage … as a way to suggest that the media is overtaken by liberal interests.”

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier prepares to cast his ballot in Beauce, Quebec, Oct. 21, 2019. Jacques Boissinot/Pool via Reuters

Asked what message the defeat of the PPC now sends to the Conservative Party as it rebuilds after failing to topple the Liberals, Small said there is nothing to be gained by pushing further to the right.

“There’s no more people there. There’s none,” she said.

“If there’s going to be a leadership race, a Kellie Leitch type of candidate probably doesn’t dominate,” Small added, referring to the one-time Conservative leadership hopeful who had controversially proposed screening immigrants for “Canadian values” and setting up an RCMP tip line so people could report “barbaric cultural practices.”

However, there is a chance, Momani said, that backers of right-wing populism may still want to work with the Conservative Party, in the same way the Tea Party movement in the U.S. worked with the Republican Party to elect Donald Trump.

The People’s Party itself though is “probably” dead, Laycock said. Bernier’s poor showing in Quebec indicates there isn’t a regional base for his conservative alternative.

Furthermore, “it is very hard to attract media attention without any MPs, especially when your leader can’t win his own seat.”

The Liberals are set to form a minority government after four years with a sometimes tumultuous majority, raising the prospect of days or more of jockeying among the parties

At various times, the election seemed to be about climate change, abortion, infrastructure or Indigenous rights. But nothing cohered into a specific ballot question

Scheer has been Conservative since high school; Singh may just be hipper than Trudeau; Bernier was in Harper s cabinet; and May wasn t born in Canada

This could get messy. Fortunately, the Westminster parliamentary system has a long track record of successfully sorting out messy election situations
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