Sunday, January 29, 2006

Northern Exposure: Think Canada's Turning Rightward? Think Again

The Scandal-Plagued Liberals Deserved to Lose After 12 Years in Power, But Don't Expect a Reagan-Style Conservative Revolution With New PM Stephen Harper

By Skeeter Sanders

Michael Moore was not a happy camper.

The left-leaning American documentary filmmaker -- famous for his General Motors-bashing "Roger and Me," his gun lobby-bashing "Bowling for Columbine" and his Bush-bashing masterpiece, "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- was unnerved by news reports in the U.S. media on the eve of Canada's January 23 parliamentary election that Canadian voters were "about to take a hard turn to the right" by sweeping out Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal Party government after more than 12 years in power and sweeping in Stephen Harper's Conservative Party to form the next government.

Unnerved? "Totally freaked out" would be a more accurate description of Moore's mood. Moore was having the political equivalent of a heart attack.

So he fired up his computer, logged on to his Web site (, and went ballistic. "Oh, Canada -- you're not really going to elect a Conservative majority on Monday, are you? That's a joke, right?" he wrote furiously. "I know you have a great sense of humor, but this is no longer funny.

"First, you have the courage to stand against the war in Iraq -- and then you elect a prime minister who's for it. You declare gay people have equal rights -- and then you elect a man who says they don't!" an exasperated Moore continued.

"A man running the nation to the south of you is hoping you can lend him a hand by picking Stephen Harper, because he's a man who shares his world view," Moore went on. "Do you want to help George W. Bush by turning Canada into his latest conquest?

"Far be it from me, as an American, to suggest what you should do. I hope you don't feel this appeal of mine is too intrusive, but I just couldn't sit by, as your friend, and say nothing,"
Moore concluded.

Canadians Becoming Maple Leaf Versions of Archie Bunker? Get Real!

Hey, Michael! From one American to another, let me give you some advice: Take a freakin' chill pill, dude! To say that you're overreacting would be an understatement. A change of government north of the border was long overdue.

Canadians even made history by electing their first-ever prime minister from western Canada, as Harper hails from Alberta. But you've got to be smoking crack to suggest that our northern neighbors are suddenly turning into Maple Leaf versions of Archie Bunker.

And if American conservatives expect Harper to usher in a Ronald Reagan-style conservative revolution north of the 49th parallel -- as radio talkmeisters Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have been gloating about all week -- they're going to be bitterly disappointed. Even the most conservative Canadians want nothing to do with the increasingly authoritarian style of right-wing government now in power in Washington.

If you had been paying closer attention to what's been going on in Canada over the past three years, you would have known that Canadian voters were in a "throw the bums out!" mood in the wake of one corruption scandal after another that had dogged the Liberal Party government since 2003.

And if you had followed the Canadian media, rather than their American counterparts, you also would have learned that voters across the "Great White North" were far more interested in making a change in government than in a change in ideological direction.

According to an Environics Poll conducted for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the weekend before last Monday's election, 54 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Conservatives because after 12 years of Liberal rule, it was time for a change. Only 41 percent said they were voting for Harper's party because they wanted the government to take a right turn in direction. The remaining five per cent declined to state a reason for their vote.

The New Conservative Government Will Be Weaker Than the Old Liberal One

Not only did Canadian voters deny the Conservatives a parliamentary majority, they made Harper's new minority government actually weaker than the minority Liberal government they tossed out of office, awarding the Conservatives nine fewer seats in the House of Commons than the Liberals won in the previous election 19 months ago.

A minimum of 155 seats is required in the 308-seat Commons for the governing party to have a majority. In last Monday's vote, the Conservatives, who held 98 seats as the official opposition party in the old parliament, will hold only 124 seats in the new one.

The Liberals, who have governed Canada for most of the country's 138-year history, will become the opposition party for only the third time in the last half-century, falling from 133 seats in the outgoing parliament to 103 seats in the new one.

The separatist Bloc Quebecois -- which fields candidates only in Quebec -- won 51 seats, down from 58 in 2004. The more left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) won 28 seats, up from 19 in the last election. One seat went to an independent.

The new government will be sworn in next Monday, February 6.

Comparing Apples With Oranges

To compare Canadians with Americans, both politically and culturally, is like comparing apples with oranges. Canada as a whole is to the left of the United States -- nowhere more so than Quebec, home to a quarter of Canada's 30 million people. With their French language, culture and heritage, Quebecers are the most politically and socially progressive people in North America, bar none. And Quebec, for better or for worse, wields a tremendous influence on the rest of Canada.

Even Alberta -- Canada's most conservative province -- is more moderate than its southern neighbors Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Tell Albertans that either Harper or their Conservative provincial premier, Ralph Klein, are ideological soulmates of President Bush, and they'll look at you as though you were from another planet -- bristling with indignation that you would dare to suggest that.

Conversely, Vice President Dick Cheney, who calls Wyoming home, couldn't get elected dogcatcher in Alberta. Compared to either Klein or Harper, even conservative Albertans consider Cheney an American version of Darth Vader, the power behind the throne of Emperor Dubyah's evil empire.

Significantly, the Environics Poll found that while 51 percent of Canadians oppose same-sex marriage, 66 per cent -- a solid two-thirds majority -- nonetheless oppose the Conservatives bringing the same-sex marriage issue back to parliament for a repeal vote, as Harper had promised. Only 30 per cent were in favor of repeal.

A repeal vote in parliament is now unlikely, given the fact that the Conservatives -- the only one of Canada's four major federal-level political parties that opposes gay marriage -- fell 31 seats short of a majority and would almost certainly lose if Harper makes good on his promise.

Unlike their American counterparts in Congress and the state legislatures, Canada's political parties are, as a practical matter, forced by the country's parliamentary system to maintain strict party discipline.

The only maverick on Ottawa's Parliament Hill will be the lone independent, Andre Arthur, a former Quebec City radio "shock jock" known as the French-language "Howard Stern of Quebec." A jubilant Arthur told reporters on election night that he had no intention of muting his incendiary style in parliament -- which could lead to repeated clashes with the Commons' rules of decorum.

Arthur's highly inflammatory commentaries got him sued for defamation by two former Quebec premiers and ultimately fired after his station, CHOI-FM, was stripped of its license in 2004 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for Arthur repeatedly violating the CRTC's anti-defamation rules.

Quebec Politics at Root of "Sponsorship Scandal" That Dogged Liberals

In a sense, the corruption scandal that plagued the Liberals and their subsequent election defeat was the latest chapter in a political soap opera in Quebec that has held the rest of Canada captive for almost 40 years -- ever since the founding of the pro-independence Parti Quebecois by Rene Levesque, a former TV journalist, in 1968.

Ironically, Quebec is also the home province of four of Canada's last six prime ministers -- Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

The Liberals' defeat was poetic justice to many Quebecers who considered Ottawa's involvement in the French-speaking province's 1995 independence referendum federal interference in Quebec's internal political affairs.

The anti-independence side won the referendum -- Quebec's second in 15 years -- by a razor-thin majority, but the narrowness of the vote shocked Quebecers on both sides. The raw feelings it engendered have taken most of the ensuing decade to heal.

The provincial Liberal Party government of Premier Jean Charest -- ironically, a former federal Conservative Party leader himself -- had been in office in Quebec City barely a month after ousting the PQ in the 2003 provincial election, when newspapers across Quebec exploded in May of that year with front-page headlines about an alleged multi-million-dollar kickback scheme stemming from Ottawa's financial backing of many Quebec organizations involved in the massive campaign to defeat pro-independence forces in the 1995 referendum.

The ensuing controversy, which came to be known as the "sponsorship scandal," effectively forced then-Prime Minister Chretien to resign the following November, enabling then-Finance Minister Martin to take over as both Liberal Party leader and prime minister going into the June 2004 parliamentary election.

Canadian voters -- especially Quebecers -- angry over the sponsorship scandal spanked the three-term Liberals in the 2004 election by taking away their 11-year-old parliamentary majority, reducing their numbers from 158 to 133.

At the same time, however, they weren't yet willing to trust Harper's Conservatives, some of whose candidates made highly inflammatory remarks on the hot-button social issue of gay marriage just three days before voting began.

What a Difference 19 Months Make

In sharp contrast to the 2004 campaign, the Tories -- as the Conservatives are alternately known -- this time ran a highly disciplined effort to appeal to the center. Many of the party's loose-lipped candidates from 19 months ago weren't allowed to run again. Others were under strict orders to stay on the party's central message of clean government, child-care support for working parents, a crackdown on violent crime and a reduction of the long-hated national sales tax.

So disciplined was the Tory campaign this time around, that when a Conservative candidate in British Columbia got himself arrested at the U.S. border just before Christmas for allegedly smuggling marijuana, the party immediately gave him the boot.

The Liberal campaign, on the other hand, was a virtual comedy of errors, with the party forced into almost non-stop damage-control mode for one campaign gaffe after another. To be brutally frank, it sucked.

The miscues ranged from the minor (A tired Martin dishing out criticism intended for Harper during a nationally televised party leaders' debate, but gesturing at NDP leader Jack Layton instead), to the disastrous (A highly inflammatory -- and false -- TV attack ad against Harper that the Liberals rejected as potentially defamatory, only to end up going on the air anyway).

Fortuitous Timing of Events Also Helped Conservatives

Fate also appeared to not be on the Liberals' side, either. But that didn't become self-evident until after Canadians rang in 2006.

Harper's Conservatives had, in fact, been pushing to bring down the Martin government and force an early election since last summer, but were thwarted at every turn by the NDP, whose leader, Jack Layton, insisted on allowing Martin to make good on a pledge he made in a rare TV address to the nation in April to call an election within 30 days after publication of the final report of an independent inquiry into the sponsorship scandal.

A preliminary report published in early November by the inquiry panel headed by John Gomery, a retired federal judge, absolved Martin of any wrongdoing, but accused senior Liberals, including former Prime Minister Chretien, of taking kickbacks and misappropriating tens of millions of dollars in public funds. The final report is due to be published in February.

(Chretien promptly responded by suing the Gomery commission, accusing it of making accusations without any evidence to back them up. Chretien's lawsuit, filed in Federal Court in Montreal, is still pending as of this writing).

Martin, however, will never get the chance to follow through on his April promise.

On November 28, the NDP -- angered by the failure to reach a deal with the Liberals on a health-care financing package -- joined with the Conservatives and the Bloc in voting "no confidence" in Martin's government, forcing last Monday's election.

The prospect of an election campaign during the holiday season -- which hadn't occurred in Canada in over 50 years -- didn't sit well with Canadians at first. As the holidays drew closer, it appeared that the Conservatives might have miscalculated, for pre-holiday polls showed the Liberals with a narrow lead -- raising the prospect of an unprecedented fifth consecutive Liberal election victory.

Probe of Finance Was the Final Straw for Voters

But in the week between Christmas and New Year's -- during which all four parties took a break from campaigning -- yet another Liberal scandal exploded: On December 29, news broke that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was investigating allegations that Finance Minister Ralph Goodale leaked market-sensitive information about proposed tax changes ahead of a formal government announcement about them.

Rather than take a leave of absence, which is customary in Canada whenever a government official -- especially a cabinet officer -- comes under RCMP investigation for alleged questionable activities, Goodale insisted on staying on the job. "There is no evidence of any wrongdoing on my part, or on the part of anyone else for that matter," Goodale told the CBC, insisting that the allegations against him were politically motivated.

That did it. Voter support for the Liberals quickly collapsed, while support for both the Conservatives and the NDP soared. Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was downright giddy over the prospect of his party winning more than 50 percent of the popular vote in Quebec, which would have been a first for a pro-independence party in that province -- and raise the specter of yet another independence referendum in the near future.

To the surprise of almost everyone, however, the Conservatives won 10 seats in Quebec -- seven of them at the expense of the Bloc. It was the first time the Conservatives had won seats in Quebec since 1989 -- and the Bloc garnered only 43 percent of the popular vote. And in another surprise, Goodale was re-elected in his Manitoba district by a landslide, despite the ongoing RCMP investigation of him.

The Limits of a Minority Government's Power

Traditional political wisdom in Ottawa holds that minority governments in Canada usually last between a year and 18 months. Unlike the outgoing Liberal minority government, which had the on-again, off-again backing of the NDP, the Conservatives have no natural allies in the Commons and will be forced to seek support from their political rivals on an issue-by-issue basis.

Even more daunting for the Conservatives is the fact that the separatist Bloc, with their 51 seats, will hold the balance of power in the Commons -- and that the Liberals will still control the Senate, whose members are appointed by the prime minister and which effectively has veto power over legislation passed by the Commons (The Senate can initiate legislation on its own, subject to Commons approval, but seldom does so).

After 12 years, the Liberals have amassed a solid majority in the 105-member upper chamber.

Harper acknowledged as much during a press conference on the Friday before the election -- which may have swayed many voters angry at the scandal-plagued Liberals but wary of the Conservatives' stand on abortion and gay marriage to make up their minds and cast their votes for the Conservatives.

Harper pledged not to disturb Canada's abortion law. As with gay marriage, his party will lack the votes to repeal it anyway.

Given the history of minority governments not lasting longer than 18 months -- and of Conservative Party governments, whether majority or minority, not lasting longer than three years, save for Brian Mulroney's (1984-1993) -- Harper's biggest challenge will come next spring, when parliament must pass the budget for the 2007 fiscal year.

Under Canadian law, if the budget fails to pass, the government automatically falls, forcing yet another election. But with all four parties nearly broke financially after this just-concluded campaign, none are willing to hit the campaign trail again so soon.

Moreover, the Liberals will be preoccupied in the next few months with a race to choose a new party leader. Martin, in his concession speech on election night, stunned Liberal loyalists by announcing that he would not lead the party into the next election and take a lower profile as a "backbench" member of the Parliament. Martin was overwhelmingly re-elected to his seat, representing a Montreal district.

Will there be cooperation on Parliament Hill, or will there be gridlock? Only time will tell.


Volume I, Number 9
Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

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