Bernier affair hits Harper hard

The prime minister's reputation as a leader is damaged by his response

"L'affaire Maxime Bernier"

The contradiction is fascinating. While Maxime Bernier proved to be a lethal mix of incompetence and irresponsibility, we're now hearing that his resignation as minister is somehow a great loss for the Tories in Quebec.
If anything, the real loss for the Tories won't stop at the borders of Quebec. The real damage is to Stephen Harper's image as a strong leader because he failed to intervene in a situation where his foreign affairs minister could have jeopardized national security by associating privately and publicly with a woman who once had very close ties to members of organized crime.
Yes, Bernier was a bumbling minister who didn't know much about foreign affairs and who left confidential documents lying around his girlfriend's house or on airplanes. Yes, Bernier chose to go out with Julie Couillard, although she had relationships with men linked to the Hell's Angels and the Rockers. But it is the prime minister who did nothing to stop this, even when the story became public earlier this month.

If it hadn't been for TVA's explosive interview with Couillard this week, Canadians would still have as their foreign minister someone who paraded in public with someone linked to organized crime. The same minister left highly confidential documents at Couillard's place for a whole five weeks without he, or anyone in government, pounding on her door to get them back. It boggles the mind that Harper is still calling this relationship a purely private matter or that he keeps minimizing this security breach, stating without proof that these documents were never sold to criminal or foreign interests.
In most serious governments, heads would be rolling. Any responsible prime minister or president would have acted swiftly to investigate the matter. Such a serious situation would have led not only to the resignation of the minister but also to the loss of his seat. But not in Harperland.
That Bernier wasn't asked to resign his seat shows that Harper's sense of priorities is questionable. If anything, it's testimony that he's more worried about losing seats in Quebec than taking care of the nation's business. With the Beaucerons sticking by native son Bernier, Harper knows that Bernier will be re-elected if he sticks around.
But Bernier will be no asset in Quebec. In fact, his penchant for gaffes had taken care of that months ago, despite the view of the PMO, which saw Bernier as a formidable marketing tool here for the next election. Yet, Bernier's failings are less a reflection of the specific weakness of Harper's Quebec cabinet than that of his entire cabinet. Bernier might be unimpressive at best, but it's not as if Bev Oda, Rona Ambrose or Peter McKay, the guy whom Bernier replaced, are anything to write home about. This cabinet could well be the weakest one of any federal government in the past 50 years.
It says a lot about the cabinet's limited talent pool that the prime minister had to replace Bernier with David Emerson, a former Liberal and a unilingual anglo to boot.
Outside of the Beauce, Bernier's loss as minister came as no surprise. The big surprise was the extent of what appears to be his amazing irresponsibility on basic national security issues.
So, chances are that it's not only in Quebec that the prime minister will come out of the Bernier-Couillard mess looking as if he cannot manage a major issue such as national security.
Yesterday's CROP-La Presse poll showed the Bloc is still in first place in Quebec. Future cross-country polls could show that the Bernier-Couillard affair is hurting Tory support and Harper's credibility.

With CROP showing that Jean Charest's Liberals have now entered the magical field of a possible majority, MPs and MNAs are sure to spend many a summer barbecue debating who will be tempted to go for an election first this fall: Charest or Stéphane Dion?

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