NATIONAL

MAXIME BERNIER

HE'S ARGUED THAT DISCRIMINATION BASED ON INCOME—TAXING THE RICH MORE—IS AS BAD AS ANY OTHER KIND

PAUL WELLS March 13 2006
NATIONAL

MAXIME BERNIER

HE'S ARGUED THAT DISCRIMINATION BASED ON INCOME—TAXING THE RICH MORE—IS AS BAD AS ANY OTHER KIND

PAUL WELLS March 13 2006

MAXIME BERNIER

The HATCHETMAN

HE'S ARGUED THAT DISCRIMINATION BASED ON INCOME—TAXING THE RICH MORE—IS AS BAD AS ANY OTHER KIND

It’s not long before a conversation with Maxime Bernier leads in directions you might not expect from an industry minister.

“We must decide, as a society, whether we’re going to have more state intervention in the economy or less,” the rookie MP from Quebec’s Beauce region says. “And more freedom or less.”

Less state intervention in the economy? More freedom? He’s the industry minister. Haven’t his officials briefed him yet?

In point of fact, when Bernier sat down with a Maclean’s reporter recently, he was in the midst of the intensive briefings from public servants that greet every new minister at every department. But Bernier brings his own agenda to Ottawa, and it will be fascinating to see whether he can reconcile his ideas with the rough-and-tumble of life in a minority government.

All the more fascinating because the stakes are so high. Even before he was elected as part of Harper’s bumper crop of 10 Quebec MPs, some in Bernier’s party were talking about him as a possible future Conservative prime minister of Canada. He’s handsome and soft-spoken. He’s a former vice-president of

Standard Life of Canada. He ’s bilingual, if still a little more comfortable in French. He’s a half-marathon runner who will soon begin daily morning runs with his new cabinet colleague, Stockwell Day. “It’s the best way to get rid of stress,” he jokes, “if I’m supposed to be smiling and welcoming journalists.” And he has shown more zeal for rolling back the size and function of government than is normally fashionable at the headquarters of the mighty, business-subsidizing, regulation-intensive Industry Department on Queen Street in Ottawa. In 2003, Bernier wrote

STAR ROOKIE: Even before he was elected, some in the party spoke of him as future PM

a book entitled Pour un taux unique d’imposition: Pour en finir avec le mythe des taux progressistes (For a Single Tax Rate: Time to Do Away With The Myth of Progressive Tax Rates). Its policy prescription—a single tax rate for everyone regardless of income—was audacious enough. Its philosophical underpinning was more so: Bernier argued that discrimination based on income—taxing the rich more than everyone else—is no more defensible than discrimination based on religion.

Bernier’s flat-tax book was a product of his brief tenure on the board of the Institut économique de Montreal, a libertarian think tank that also regularly calls for private-sector health care. Bernier is quick to insist the Montreal institute’s opinions aren’t necessarily his own. “You might as well say that I’m the spokesman for the insurance industry because I used to work at Standard Life.” But there is a stubborn small-government streak in his comments. “I said over and over again during the campaign that what we need is less government on our backs and less government in our pockets.”

What does that mean in practice? Baby

steps. Bernier sits on the Harper cabinet’s powerful priorities and planning committee, which will try to ensure the government can deliver quickly on a few key projects (the parallel operations committee is for handling surprises and putting out fires). Some of those priorities were centrepieces of Harper’s campaign, including a cut to the GST. But Bernier hopes to add his own pet project, an overhaul of Canada’s foreign investment rules, which by some estimates make Canada a harder country to invest in than most in the OECD. “The message we want to send is that we’re open to business and we’re open to foreign investment, with certain conditions.”

After that, he’ll tackle telecommunications regulations and government subsidies to business. In the latter case, his goal won’t be to cut off recipients cold turkey. Instead, he plans to require, for the first time, that businesses publicly disclose their loan repayments—or their failure to repay. Naming and shaming deadbeat businesses: a first step, perhaps, toward a smaller Industry Department and a higher profile for the new cabinet star from Quebec. BY PAUL WELLS

PAUL WELLS