September 25, 2018

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Ripples of Bernier's defection hit Winnipeg

Outcast Tory MLA Fletcher derides Conservatives, but won't say if he'll run for new party

OTTAWA — Independent Manitoba MLA Steven Fletcher, who is a Tory party outcast, is tightlipped about whether he’ll run for a new federal party launched by ex-Conservative MP Maxime Bernier.

“The actions of the Conservative party have ensured that the Conservative party will not be winning any seats in Winnipeg,” Fletcher said Thursday.

The ex-MP was a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He was defeated in 2015. Months later, he successfully ran provincially as a Progressive Conservative. The provincial PCs ejected Fletcher from their caucus last year, after he broke ranks on numerous policies, including the decision to create a Crown corporation to boost energy efficiency.

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OTTAWA — Independent Manitoba MLA Steven Fletcher, who is a Tory party outcast, is tightlipped about whether he’ll run for a new federal party launched by ex-Conservative MP Maxime Bernier.

"The actions of the Conservative party have ensured that the Conservative party will not be winning any seats in Winnipeg," Fletcher said Thursday.

The ex-MP was a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He was defeated in 2015. Months later, he successfully ran provincially as a Progressive Conservative. The provincial PCs ejected Fletcher from their caucus last year, after he broke ranks on numerous policies, including the decision to create a Crown corporation to boost energy efficiency.

"Why become a member of a party, when the party clearly doesn’t care?" - Manitoba MLA Steven Fletcher

In late June, federal Conservative party brass thwarted Fletcher’s bid to seek the party's nomination in Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley, which he represented for more than a decade until his defeat by Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson in 2015.

Manitoba MLA Steven Fletcher asked whether party politics is still healthy under Scheer: "Is it a party or a gang?" (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Manitoba MLA Steven Fletcher asked whether party politics is still healthy under Scheer: "Is it a party or a gang?" (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

The party never explained the move. At the time, Fletcher said his support for Bernier's leadership bid was likely a factor. He also said party leader Andrew Scheer has shut down debate within his own party.

Harper was notorious for chastizing MPs who publicly dissented from the official line, such as those who wanted to restrict abortions — but Fletcher claims that internally, Tories could openly debate a policy before rallying behind it.

In his own words

Maxime Bernier declared Thursday that he is quitting the federal Conservatives to launch his own political movement. Read the full text of the hard-hitting statement he read aloud during his news conference.

Maxime Bernier declared Thursday that he is quitting the federal Conservatives to launch his own political movement. The full text of the hard-hitting statement he read aloud during his news conference.

"Over the past few months, I have been raising policy issues which I believe are crucially important for the future of our country. This is my job as a member of Parliament.

"Moreover, it is my duty, as a Conservative member of Parliament, to contribute to debates and to offer policy solutions from a conservative perspective. Otherwise, what is the point of being involved in politics?

"I am in politics to defend ideas, real conservative ideas. Because I passionately care about Canada’s future. Because I know that the free-market conservative philosophy has the best solutions to ensure our society is more prosperous, secure, and peaceful.

"However, my party’s stand on several issues have convinced me that under the current leadership, it has all but abandoned its core conservative principles.

"I still cannot understand how a party that is supposed to defend free markets supports a small cartel that artificially increases the price of milk, chicken and eggs for millions of Canadian consumers.

"More importantly, supply management has become one of the main stumbling blocks to an agreement with the United States on NAFTA. Former Conservative leaders Brian Mulroney and Rona Ambrose agree that it should be put on the table.

"But the Conservative Party has been siding with the Liberal government. It also supports the retaliatory tariffs of the Liberal government, even though this is going to hurt our businesses and consumers. Even though Canada has no realistic chance of winning a trade war with a neighbour ten times larger. Even though we could successfully relaunch the negotiations if we put supply management on the table, and if we accept President Trump’s offer to negotiate a dismantling of all barriers, as the European Union has done.

"The Liberals are playing politics with this crucially important trade file. They are endangering the 20 per cent of our economy that depends on trade with the U.S., and Canada’s future prosperity.

"But instead of leading as a principled Conservative and defending the interests of Canada and Canadians, Andrew Scheer is following the Trudeau Liberals. I was told that internal polls are showing that the Liberals’ response to Trump is popular. And that in six months, if the polls change, the party’s stand may change too.

"The same thing happened in reaction to my tweets on diversity and multiculturalism. This is another crucial debate for the future of our country. Do we want to emphasize our ethnic and religious differences, and exploit them to buy votes, as the Liberals are doing? Or emphasize what unites us and the values that can guarantee social cohesion?

"Just like in other Western societies grappling with this issue, a large number of Canadians, and certainly the vast majority of Conservatives, are worried that we are heading in the wrong direction. But it’s not politically correct to raise such questions.

"Instead of leading the debate and pushing back against all the unfair accusations, Andrew Scheer chose to avoid the controversy. He and several of my colleagues disavowed me. They are so afraid of criticism by the Left and the media that they prefer to let down millions of supporters across the country who would like us to tackle this issue.

"When the Liberal government recently renewed the unfair and inefficient equalization formula for another five years, I was the only one to criticize it. Not a word from my Conservative colleagues.

"A Conservative party that supports free markets should also advocate the end of corporate welfare. It is not only the principled thing to do, it could also be popular if we defend it in a consistent way. Canadians are tired of paying taxes to bail out Bombardier, Ford and other businesses.

"Instead of taking up this idea, Andrew Scheer announced that he would name a regional minister for all the regional development agencies in the country, as opposed to having only one minister overseeing them as is the case now. He wants a minister from Quebec to distribute subsidies to Quebec, a minister from Atlantic Canada to distribute subsidies to Atlantic Canada, and so on.

"The conservative solution should be to abolish these wasteful agencies. What my party proposes is to make them more efficient at buying votes with taxpayers’ money.

"How can we expect this party to adopt any conservative reform when it comes to power, if it cannot even articulate a clear stand and defend them before it is elected? I am now convinced that what we will get if Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister is just a more moderate version of the disastrous Trudeau government.

"I have come to realize over the past year that this party is too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed.

"I know for a fact that many in the caucus privately oppose supply management. But buying votes in a few key ridings is more important than defending the interests of all Canadians.

"The whole strategy of the party is to play identity politics, pander to various interest groups and buy votes with promises, just like the Liberals.

"The Conservative Party tries to avoid important but controversial issues of concern to Conservatives and Canadians in general. It is afraid to articulate any coherent philosophy to support its positions.

"Every public declaration is tested with polls and focus groups. The result is a bunch of platitudes that don’t offend anybody, but also don’t mean anything and don’t motivate anyone.

"Andrew Scheer keeps talking about his 'positive Conservative vision.' But nobody knows what that vision is.

"The Conservative Party has abandoned conservatives. It does not represent them anymore. And it has nothing of substance to offer Canadians looking for a political alternative.

"If we want conservative principles to win the battle of ideas, we have to defend them openly, with passion and conviction.

"That is what I want to do. And this is why as of today, I am no longer a member of the Conservative Party of Canada. I want to do politics differently. I will find another way to give a voice to millions of Canadians. And I will continue to fight for Freedom, Responsibility, Fairness and Respect."

Bernier seemed to echo that viewpoint Thursday at an Ottawa news conference, where he declared his former Conservative party "too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed." He cited Scheer’s support for corporate subsidies and supply management, which is the system that regulates prices and quotas for dairy and poultry.

Fletcher called Bernier’s dissent "a failure" of Scheer's leadership. Fletcher was also perplexed by Tory MPs portraying Bernier as a rebel Thursday, comparing it to how PC MLAs handled his own objections to party policy. "Is it a caucus or a gang?" he asked.

Yet Fletcher was circumspect as to whether he’d enlist as a federal candidate under Bernier for the Oct. 2019 election, instead saying voters have a "strong desire" for "independent" candidates, and that he’s "fulfilling my obligations and responsibilities as an MLA."

Conservatives chose Scheer as leader in May 2017 on the 13th round of ballots. In Winnipeg, Bernier had more support than Scheer.

Just two ridings, straddling the city's northeast, voted for Scheer, while the other six sided with Bernier, who had strong support in the city’s north and south.

Maxime Bernier's support in Winnipeg during the final round results of the Conservative leadership contest against Andrew Scheer. Source: Conservative Party data sent to media. (Graeme Bruce / Winnipeg Free Press)

Maxime Bernier's support in Winnipeg during the final round results of the Conservative leadership contest against Andrew Scheer. Source: Conservative Party data sent to media. (Graeme Bruce / Winnipeg Free Press)

To Fletcher, that means the Tories are squandering support in Winnipeg by siding with unpopular handouts for corporations and farmers.

"Why become a member of a party, when the party clearly doesn’t care?" Fletcher said from the Conservative party convention in Halifax. He said the mood seemed "subdued" and that many were wearing buttons calling for an end to supply management.

Quebec MP Maxime Bernier has left the Conservative Party of Canada, saying it no longer upholds the fundamentals of conservatism. ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Quebec MP Maxime Bernier has left the Conservative Party of Canada, saying it no longer upholds the fundamentals of conservatism. ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Though federal and provincial party brass have deemed Fletcher persona non grata, he has significant support amount right-leaning Manitobans.

Ottawa strategists have been considering the prospect of Fletcher running against a Conservative candidate, which they say would likely split the right-leaning vote and secure a win for Eyolfson.

The Conservative riding association for the Winnipeg seat Fletcher once held hasn't set a date for the nomination vote. City Coun. Marty Morantz and financial analyst Stephen Barber are the only vying for the nomination so far.

Fletcher said Morantz is "a parachute candidate" with limited ties to the riding, which partially overlaps his city ward. He said the party hand-picked Morantz.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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