Canadian Conservatives Ride Scandal to Power

At a time when Canada’s economy is booming and the country’s animosity toward America and particularly George W. Bush is especially intense, Canadian voters nonetheless turned out the Liberal Party after 13 years in power and replaced Bush-bashing Prime Minister Paul Martin with far more U.S.-friendly Conservative Stephen Harper.

Harper’s Conservative Party (a recent merger of the right-of-center Reform Party and the moderate Progressive-Conservatives) won Canada’s House of Commons elections last week and will thus form the new government. The Conservatives won 124 seats; the Liberals, 103; the exclusively from Quebec Bloc Quebecois, 51; and the far-left New Democratic Party, 29.

Soft-Spoken Leader

Although the 46-year-old Harper’s party will have many fewer seats than the 133 won by the Liberals in the last national elections two years ago, pundits are predicting the new Conservative regime will survive longer than Martin’s, partly because the Liberals go into opposition bitterly divided and leaderless.

With Martin stepping down as party leader, Canadian journalist David Frum of the American Enterprise Institute noted: "There is no orderliness of succession and there will be an ugly race for the Liberal leadership between supporters of Martin and those of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, whom the Martin faction blames for getting the party into the scandal."

"The scandal" was the nearly two-years-long investigation into charges that, while Chrétien was prime minister in the 1990s, more than $75 million in tax dollars was funneled through state offices (including the Mounties) to advertising agencies in Quebec with ties to the Liberal Party. Although Martin insisted he had no knowledge of the scandal while serving as Chrétien’s finance minister, the probe and resulting publicity clearly tainted the Liberal Party.

Harper hit the corruption issue hard, making a tougher ethics-in-government "accountability" law for elected officials and civil servants a central plank of his campaign. The other priorities Harper set for a Conservative government were: a two-stage cut in the goods and services tax (GST) from 7% to 5%, transferring a larger share of federal tax revenues to the provinces (states), a tough "law and order" stand to combat the country’s rising crime and a voucher-like program to help parents pay for daycare.
In sharp contrast to Martin, Harper also vowed a significant increase in Canadian spending on defense and intelligence and suggested he might revisit the Liberal rejection of taking part in the U.S. missile defense system.

During the campaign, Martin tried to link Harper to American conservatives and a hidden agenda. To his opponent’s offhand comment that he felt judges were legislating from the bench, Martin charged, "We have a party that wants to take this country to the far, far right of the U.S. conservative movement." (In Canada, the prime minister makes more than 5,000 appointments to the civil service and judiciary, none of which require confirmation from parliament.) Martin also tried to tie Harper to Bush and U.S. conservatives by rehashing his opponent’s support for the Iraq War and many pro-American statements.

Like Chief Justice John Roberts, Harper is a soft-spoken, studious conservative who “was often in a room full of persons and he was the smartest of them all,” according to Canadian political consultant Goldy Hyder, the new prime minister’s classmate at the University of Calgary. An avid fan of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s "Firing Line," Harper once headed a conservative advocacy group known as the National Citizens Coalition in which he argued for more autonomy for the provinces against what he called a "hostile federal government."

Recalling the close relationship between Ronald Reagan and Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s, David Frum observed: "You won’t have the President and Prime Minister singing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,’ but things will improve between Washington and Ottawa."