January 24, 2006
Narrow Win for Canada's ConservativesBy Paul Jackson
Canadian Conservative Leader Stephen Harper eked out a minority win in the federal election yesterday after early hopes were dashed he might be able to pull off a majority win or come close enough to controlling the House of Commons that the three opposition parties would be reluctant to challenge him on each and every one of his initiatives.
Basically put, the Conservatives changed places with Prime Minister Paul Martin's minority government, and will now have to tread a careful path negotiating with the other three opposition parties to try and get his platform approved in the Parliament and the heavily Liberal—dominated Senate.
The Narrow Win
Early this morning the Conservatives were expected to win 124 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. Defeated Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin candidates were holding onto 103 seats. The left—leaning Quebec separatist party of Gilles Duceppe saw its number of Members of Parliament fall to 51 from 54. The socialist New Democrats under leader Jack Layton were headed for 29 seats, up from 19 seats. One independent MP was elected.
Martin became prime minister in Dec. 2003, after being finance minister for almost 10 years, but in the June, 2004, federal election his party fell from majority status, which it had held since 1993, when it managed to elect only 135 seats. Quickly plagued by scandals, Martin's government survived — or ignored —_several non—confidence votes until all three opposition parties united together and voted as a bloc in late November to finally end the Liberal run.
At the start of the campaign it seemed Martin might still be re—elected again albeit with only an increased minority, but the Conservatives gradually moved ahead. Opinion polls generally showed between 65%—70% of voters felt it was time for a change, though Liberal attack commercials painting Harper as an extremist made Eastern voters hav doubts about him.
Relations with the United States
A stronger Harper victory would have been good news for President George W. Bush. Both Martin, and his Liberal predecessor, Jean Chretien, were highly critical of the Bush administration — refusing to give it even moral support on its liberation of Iraq, and refusing to join the missile defence shield program.
During the campaign, Martin and the Liberals painted Harper as a stooge of the U.S. and implied he was being backed by extreme rightwing elements south of the border. None of the slurs against Harper were true, but he does want to rebuild the once warm relationship Canada had with American during the years when Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was in power between 1984—93.
The increasingly anti—American tone — or anti—Republican — stance of the Martin regime infuriated American Ambassador to Ottawa David Wilkins. Wilkins' predecessor, former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci, even wrote a book entitled 'Unquiet Diplomacy' expressing his own disappointments with the Chretien regime.
Harper's Conservative Agenda
Harper edged to victory with a campaign promising to clean up patronage and corruption in government, cut taxes, rebuild the military, give back to the provinces traditional rights that had been encroached on by Liberal governments over the past 35 years, make the Senate an elected body, and put more openness into the selection of Supreme Court judges.
Though Canada's economy is relatively strong, due mainly to a higher cycle of prices for natural resources, the country's productivity is estimated to be some 20% lower than that of the U.S., and the disposable income of the average Canadian about 20% lower than that of the average American.
Coincidentally, it's also estimated combined municipal, provincial and federal tax rates are also about 20% higher than in the U.S.
Harper's start—of—campaign pledge to cut the 7% Goods and Services Tax (GST) — a federal sales tax that applies to everything from automobiles to haircuts to candy to legal bills — to 5% during his first term in office undermined the Liberals who had promised back in 1993 to kill it completely.
Capital gains made but reinvested within six months of the initial sale of shares or other assets, would not be taxed until finally liquidated.
Martin, one of Canada's richest men, with a fortune estimated at $200 million (Cnd.), even talked about forming closer ties with Communist China to distance the country from the U.S. His family business, Canada Steamship Lines, an international shipping company, has vessels which often fly foreign flags to avoid paying Canadian taxes and wages to crew members. Even while Liberal governments rolled up huge budgetary surpluses year after year, Martin as finance minister and prime minister contended Canadians weren't interested in tax cuts. The Liberals spent the surpluses on ever—larger programs.
A major Conservative plank that appealed to rank—and—file voters was to give families a subsidy of $1,200 a year to each child under six years of age. The plan was in contrast to a multi—billion dollar Liberal promise to assist families to send their children to approved day care centres. The Conservatives asserted the Liberal plan victimized 'traditional' families in which the mother wanted to stay at home and care for her children personally rather than send them to day care centres. The Conservative proposal, said Harper, treated all families equally and gave them freedom of choice. The Liberals, in one of the major campaign gaffes, charged families receiving $1,200 for each child — or say, $3,600 for three children — would simply spend it on 'popcorn and beer.'
The Political Reform Agenda
In Canada, Senators are appointed solely at the discretion of the prime minister, as are justices of the Supreme Court. There is no bi—partisan vetting or confirmation process. Currently, two thirds of senators are Liberal appointees, and only one Supreme Court justice is a Conservative appointee.
Harper plans to allow all future senators to be elected on a provincial basis, and to eventually give all provinces an equal number of senators as in the U.S. Actually, the province of Alberta already has a Senate Elections Act, but both Chretien and Martin have repeatedly ignored Alberta's senate elections and appointed their own choices. Harper also plans to open up the process for appointed members of the Supreme Court and de—politicize it.
Harper has promised to allow his MPs free votes in the House of Commons on any issue that would not result in the defeat of the government. The Liberals generally insist their MPs must vote with the government on every occasion or be ostracized. In Canada, cabinet ministers are appointed solely from the government caucus and any MP voting against a government initiative would certainly lose any opportunity of being appointed to the cabinet, or even to any other elite government position.
Another Conservative reform measure is to have set four—year terms for the federal government, as in the U.S., and to abolish the current system in which a government can generally call an election at the most convenient time to itself, as when public opinion polls show it has extraordinary popularity or the opposition parties are in disarray.
Marriage and Family Issues
Much of Martin's campaign was a virulent attack on an alleged 'hidden agenda' of the Conservatives in which Harper, aside from allegedly selling out Canadian interests to Washington, would rescind the Liberal law giving homosexuals the right to marry, and move to ban abortion. Abortion has been legal in Canada for some 35 years, but it was only last year that Martin's Liberal government pushed a same—sex marriage bill through Parliament.
Just edging onto the horizon during the campaign was the prospect that polygamy might well be legalized if the Supreme Court decides a Criminal Code ban on polygamy by certain Mormon sects or Middle East immigrant groups violates religious freedom under the constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
During the same—sex marriage debate this prospect was raised by religious groups and Conservatives but greeted with derision by Martin's government. Yet a federally—commissioned study has now recommended polygamy be legalized on religious and social grounds — that the wives and children of polygamous marriages would have better protection if their marriages were legally recognized.
Harper's Conservatives, who already plan to hold a free vote on homosexual marriage, which could lead to rescinding the Liberal—induced law, would vigorously oppose legalizing polygamy.
Into this scenario would come the so—called 'notwithstanding' clause in the constitution. The clause allows federal or provincial governments to override a Supreme Court constitutional decision if federal or provincial legislators feel the court has gone beyond its jurisdiction. Without the notwithstanding clause — commonly called the opting—out clause — Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau's government would never have been able to win approval from the provinces for a new Canadian constitution in 1982.
The case for the clause is that the elected representatives of the people should have the the supreme authority for making laws, rather than appointed judges. In the midst of the campaign, Martin suddenly announced his first action if re—elected would be to abolish the notwithstanding clause, supposedly to protect Canadians from the whims of extremist politicians. Martin's move caught even his own party by surprise, and constitutional experts pondered whether Martin could actually push such a draconian move to change the constitution through Parliament.
During his almost 10—year tenure as finance minister under Chretien's prime ministership, Martin cut Canada's military budget and its personnel by 25%.
Canada, geographically the second largest nation in the world, now has only 60,000 men and women in its armed forces, and just 20,000 combat troops. With a military budget of about $13 billion (Cdn.), it spends less of its GNP on defence than any other NATO country except the Duchy of Luxembourg.
The Liberal government's lack of commitment to defence and playing a full part in NATO and the war on terrorism is a foremost issue that has strained the relationship with Washington. Harper plans to increase defence spending by $5 billion (Cdn.) over five years.
Defence was another issue Martin stumbled over by proclaiming that Harper's plans to increase the size of the military and put military units in Canadian cities to deal with emergencies, whether from terrorist attacks or natural disasters such as winter storms, was in reality a secret way to impose martial law on the country. Veterans groups and retired military officials reacted bitterly to Martin's charge, and the Liberals' popularity plunged in the polls.
The Liberal Legacy of Scandal
Both the Chretien and Martin governments were mired in frequent scandals involving misuse of the taxpayers' money. Two federal auditor—generals, Denis Desaultels and Sheila Fraser, repeatedly raised concerns about either waste or actual malfeasance on the part of the Liberal administrations.
In one case, a $1—billion job—creation scheme was found to have likely not created even a single legitimate long—term job — it was mainly funneled through the offices of Liberal MPs — and an exhaustive inquiry by Mr. Justice John Gomery into the so—called 'Adscam' affair found that $100 million (Cnd.) was handed out to Liberal—connected advertising, public relations and polling companies and even laundered into Liberal party offices in Quebec.
The Liberal party, claiming ignorance of this chain of events, finally handed some of the money back to the federal treasury. Just before Christmas when the Liberal government lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, another scandal erupted when it was alleged a decision on taxation was leaked to Liberal insiders and allowed them to reap millions of dollars in quick profits on the stock market. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are now investigating the allegations.
Sure to be probed by the new Conservative administration are a number of 'foundations' set up by the Chretien administration into which billions of dollars have been poured, but which are out of bounds to the auditors—general.
The Conservatives are also suspicious about the Liberal—created 'gun registry' the costs of which have soared to $2 billion (Cnd.) from an original estimate of $250 million. It's often pointed out that not a single criminal has yet to register a firearm, and that farmers and sportsmen have been unfairly targeted. In Canada, handguns, with rare exceptions, have been banned since the mid—1930s. The Conservatives contend the gun registry is at best a huge waste of money, but also suspect much of the $2 billion has also been doled out to Liberal—friendly advertising, public relations and polling firms.
Harper has promised to make Canadian politics more ethical and open by instituting a wide—ranging 56—point Federal Accountability Act that would impose tough penalties on politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists who make money from their political connections, particularly windfall profits, and patronage government contracts. He also plans to ban corporate and union donations to federal political parties and impose a limit of $1,000 in personal contributions.
Canada's Health Care System
Health care is always a dominant issue in Canadian politics. With the exception of cosmetic surgery, private health care is basically banned, although private MRI clinics are now skirting the rules, as are clinics offering some other medical procedures. The government—funded system has led to a serious shortage of doctors and long waiting times for non—emergency treatment. For instance, hip replacements, while free, may take up to two years to obtain.
Coincidentally, Martin's own doctor is one of those who have managed to evade the rules by opening up a chain of private clinics for rich clients. Harper believes that only a mix of government and private health care services can save the system.
Crimes rates have been rising dramatically during the past 10 years, particularly in large cities where Jamaican or Vietnamese gangs have brought a new lawlessness to traditionally safe communities. Martin has blamed a wave of street murders on guns smuggled in from the U.S.
Harper has promised tough minimum sentences of five or 10 years for any gun related crime. He has denounced the automatic parole system in which most convicts generally are released after serving two—thirds of their sentences. The Conservative leader has also spoken out against 'conditional' sentences in which even individuals convicted of violent crimes are allowed to serve their sentences in their own homes with curfew restrictions.
Moving Forward without a Majority
While the slim Conservative victory will still be a relief for Bush, Harper will have to soft—peddle his pro—American stance for a time to avoid accusations he has sold out to Washington, and slowly persuade voters that his determination to rebuild relations with Washington will pay off dividends for Canadians in the long run. Harper plans abandon the Kyoto Accord signed by the Liberals, and will likely agree to join the missile defence shield program, rejected by the Liberals.
If President Bush could solve the ongoing bitter softwood lumber dispute, in which his administration has imposed some $5 billion in duties on Canadian softwood lumber exports to the U.S., it would be a big plus for Harper and the Conservatives in their quest to prove being friendly with Washington can pay off in a big way.
However, the Conservative victory is subdued somewhat by not only the thin minority status but the knowledge that the Senate, the Supreme Court and the upper echelon bureaucracy are all dominated by the Liberal hierarchy and will surely throw roadblocks in front of Conservative policy changes.
On the plus side, Liberal and New Democrats MPs will likely be fearful of a voter backlash if they reject Harper's plans to cut the much disliked federal Goods and Services Tax (GST) from 7% to 5% and to provide the $1,200 subsides to families with children under six years of age.
Harper is also likely to get the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois onside with his moves to clean up curruption and patronage in government with his Federal Accountability Act, and the Bloc Quebecois onside with his proposals to hand more rights back to the provinces.
Also, optimistically, many political observers believe Harper is essentially a solid, decent common sense type, and given a chance an increasing number of voters will recognize his qualities, so he could well become a prime minister with a popularity unmatched for decades. and accomplishments unmatched, too.
Conservative Rule in Postwar Canada
Canada has had only two Conservative majority governments since the Second World War. Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker won a minority government in 1957, turned it into a majority in 1958, but fell back to minority status in 1962. Diefenbaker, basically a prairie populist, had a somewhat stormy relationship with the U.S.
For a brief nine—month span in 1979—80, Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark formed a minority government that toppled leftwing Liberal prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's administration, only to blunder on a vote of confidence, and allowed Trudeau to regain power.
In 1984, Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney won a landslide victory, and repeated his feat in 1988. His major success was the free trade pact with the U.S., but he fell out of favor with voters in his second term when he instituted the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Mulroney, staunchly pro—American, resigned in 1993 as his popularity nose—dived over his tax reform measures.
The Conservative movement splintered in the 1980s when alienated Western Canadian Conservatives formed the Reform party, which briefly became the official opposition party in Parliament, and then tried to build on itself as the Canadian Alliance. When the Alliance took on the name of the Conservative party and Harper became its leader, he then negotiated a union with the traditional, but now much weakened, Progressive Conservative party.
It's somewhat difficult to place mainstream Conservatives in Canada within the U.S. context. It's been said religion is the divining factor in U.S. politics, while geography delineates politics north of the border. Religion certainly plays only a minor role in the Canadian political process.
Perhaps the only province in Canada with an American Conservative mindset is Alberta, which overwhelmingly votes Conservative federally and provincially. Many Albertans, thanks to the oil industry and a cattle background, see themselves as something akin to Texans. Indeed, much of the oil industry from the early part of the century on was developed by pioneers from Texas and Oklahoma, and 10% of the population of Calgary is thought to be comprised of Americans, or the children of Americans.
A plausible equation is Conservatives in Canada tend to be on the left of the Republican party or the right of the Democratic party. They hold the same values as American Conservatives on issues such as free enterprise, individual rights, less government interference, but still believe in a social net, for instance, in a government—supported universal health care system with equal access to all, with ability to pay not a qualification. Humorously, some political observers refer to the Conservatives as 'Liberal Lite'.
Harper is a 46—year—old father of two, who delights in outsmarting people on hockey trivia. He relaxed during the campaign by working on a planned book on hockey, that is now sure to become a bestseller when published. Despite his penchant for hockey, Harper is a somewhat reserved individual, in contrast to his wife, Laureen, who often rides a motorcycle. The two make a youthful, attractive couple, without the sophistication — or the money — of say, John and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Paul Jackson is a veteran political journalist who has covered North American and world politics for many major metropolitan daily newspapers for the past 40 years. He is now Editor Emeritus of the Calgary Sun, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.