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.
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.
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.
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
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.
with the United States
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
it’s also estimated combined municipal, provincial and federal
tax rates are also about 20% higher than in the U.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.
made but reinvested within six months of the initial sale of shares
or other assets, would not be taxed until finally liquidated.
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
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
Political Reform Agenda
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
almost 10-year tenure as finance minister under Chretien’s
prime ministership, Martin cut Canada’s military budget
and its personnel by 25%.
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.
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.
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.
Liberal Legacy of Scandal
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
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
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.
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
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.
Health Care System
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.
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.
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.
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.
Forward without a Majority
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rule in Postwar Canada
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.