OTTAWA — Maxime Bernier is testing the waters.
The Conservative MP, and former foreign affairs and industry minister under Stephen Harper, is trying to get a team ready to plan his leadership bid to replace his former boss, he told The Huffington Post Canada in a year-end interview.
"I need to have a big support of members in every province and also I need to have the money to do a campaign, so what I am looking at for now is whether or not I have that support."
Speaking in his corner office on Parliament Hill overlooking the Ottawa River, Bernier looks pretty happy, comfortable, and excited about his future prospects.
Maxime Bernier says he needs support in every province to launch a bid.
A framed news story — one of the few that hang on his walls — focuses on his potential as a future Conservative leader. Dated April 2007, it paints Bernier as Harper's likely successor, mentioning that he already has support out West.
Of course, that was before Bernier was asked to resign as foreign affairs minister after he left his ministerial documents at then-girlfriend Julie Couillard's house — a woman with former ties to the Hells Angels. While he spent time in the political doghouse — as a junior minister for small business — Bernier criss-crossed the country giving speeches about small government and lower taxes.
He developed quite a following at Conservative gatherings such as the Manning Networking Conference. After the election on Oct. 19, Bernier said he received calls from people across the country asking him to think seriously about becoming the Conservative Party of Canada's second leader. He even has caucus support outside of Quebec, he said.
"The people are never wrong," Bernier said about the election result that booted the Tories from office and gave the Liberals a majority government. "We have to accept the result of the election campaign."
A framed photo from 2007 suggested Bernier could succeed Harper.
Bernier proudly noted that Quebec is the only province that saw Conservative gains. Its five-person caucus grew to 12, in no small part owing to Denis Lebel, Harper's Quebec lieutenant who sought star candidates and ran a local campaign, Bernier said.
"We ran a beautiful campaign, we focused our message on Conservative values — lower taxes, respect for the Constitution, and we were present in the regions of Quebec, and it worked.
"What happened in the rest of Canada? I wasn't involved in the strategy in the rest of the country, I was working with Mr. Lebel, and I want to congratulate him," he said. "Now, we are looking towards the future."
Bernier defends the Tories' focus on banning the niqab from citizenship ceremonies — saying he still believes giving the oath of citizenship should be taken with an exposed face. Quebecers, and Canadians, he said, didn't reject the Conservatives' program.
"We are looking towards the future."
"Perhaps they rejected the perception of the personality of the prime minister, but they did not reject the program of the party: lower taxes, respect for the Constitution, promises not to run deficits."
Those are Conservative values Bernier wants to champion if he runs.
A self-described libertarian, he said he'll focus his platform on a more decentralized federalism, a smaller government less involved in Canadians' day-to-day lives, as well as more personal freedoms.
He might champion a flat tax — he wrote a book on the subject, he noted. He'll certainly call for balanced-budgets legislation — just like the one the Liberals plan to repeal. Since the election, he has already called for an end to corporate subsidies — fully aware of the paradox, since he dished them out as industry minister.
Maxime Bernier arrives at Rideau Hall with Julie Couillard to be sworn in as foreign affairs minister in 2007. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/CP)
"People in my party, they know who is Maxime Bernier. And so I have some ideas for the country but you need more than that to be a candidate," he said.
He needs money. A lot of it. Well north of a million bucks for a good run, with teams in each region, large phone banks with which to call members, and a travel budget that allows him to expand his reputation in English Canada.
If he can't mount a serious bid and doesn't think he can win, Bernier said, he "won't waste my time being a candidate.
"You'll know that quickly, and I won't run."
But if he has an organization, he'll take his time to build his team, he said, and announce his intentions only when he is sure he has the support he needs.
So far two Ontario MPs, Tony Clement and Kellie Leitch, have expressed public interest in the Conservative leadership. But several others are rumoured to be interested, including: Jason Kenney, Lisa Raitt, Michelle Rempel and Michael Chong. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s name has also been tossed around as a potential contender.
– With files from Catherine Lévesque
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: