Conservatives Poised for Comeback in Canada

Conservatives may be poised to make a comeback in the Canadian elections later this month.

The Liberals have ruled Canada’s parliament since 1993. But last fall, Canada’s right-of-center Reform Party merged with the centrist Progressive Conservatives to form a new Conservative Party. And last week, an Ipsos-Reid poll showed the Conservatives leading Prime Minster Paul Martin’s Liberals, 32% to 31%. (Another 17% went to the New Democratic Party and 6% to the Greens.)

The poll was conducted before the first nationally televised debate in English among Martin, Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper, and the smaller party leaders. But a subsequent Ipsos-Reid poll showed that 37% of those who watched the debate called Harper the winner while only 24% named Martin.

A Conservative majority in the House of Commons–or even a Harper-led coalition government formed with some of the smaller parties–would be a dramatic change for Canada. In the past, when the old Progressive Conservatives controlled the Canadian government, they accepted much of the big-spending and social agenda of the Liberals. The new Conservatives are both fiscally and socially conservative.

Canada’s shift to the right is in part the product of corruption under former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Martin’s predecessor as leader of the Liberals. In February, shortly after Martin became prime minister, Canada’s auditor general revealed that more than $75 million in tax dollars had been channeled through state offices (including the Mounties) to advertising agencies in Quebec with ties to the Liberal Party. Although Martin maintains he knew nothing of the scheme while serving as Chretien’s finance minister, the scandal has taken its toll. One survey showed that two-thirds of Canadian voters believe the Liberals lack integrity.

Harper has campaigned on integrity, tax cuts (primarily for middle-income earners), and increasing private provisions of the state-run health care service. He also has signaled a foreign policy more closely aligned with the U.S. and promises closer economic integration with the U.S. “[W]e should be doing all we can to make the democratization of Iraq successful,” he told the Western Standard magazine.

Although cultural issues are rarely discussed in Canadian elections, they have flared up in this contest. During their debate, Martin brought up Harper’s past anti-abortion statements and suggested he would upend Canada’s abortion-on-demand policy. Harper countered that he would not introduce “legislation eliminating a woman’s right to choose,” but also repeated his longtime stance that “should individual MPs be successful in pushing any such issue to a vote, it will be a free vote.”

Countering suggestions that Harper was retreating on the issue, Craig Chandler of Concerned Christians of Canada told me: “He isn’t retreating. The fact that he would permit his members to introduce pro-life legislation, which Martin and the Liberals won’t do, shows a major difference between the two.” Chandler also noted that Harper has to mind his coalition with the Progressive Conservatives, most of whom have left-of-center cultural views.

Harper also disagrees with C-250, a law pushed through by the Liberals that criminalizes criticism of homosexuality as hate speech. (To read more on C-250, click here.)