Thursday, December 1, 2005

Why does President Bush hope Christmas comes a little late this year? Because on Jan. 23, Canada may elect the most pro-American leader in the Western world. Free-market economist Stephen Harper, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, is pro-free trade, pro-Iraq war, anti-Kyoto, and socially conservative. Move over Tony Blair: If elected, Mr. Harper will quickly become Mr. Bush’s new best friend internationally and the poster boy for his ideal foreign leader.

Both north and south of the U.S.-Canada border, this vote matters. Canadians are facing an election that may be the closest in a generation. The first opinion poll of the campaign, a new CanWest News Service/Global News survey by Ipsos Reid, finds Prime Minister Paul Martin’s center-left Liberal Party tied with Harper’s Conservatives at 31 percent support each. Over the cold, wintry eight-week campaign, there is everything to play for on both sides of the partisan and ideological divide.

If Martin’s Liberal Party is re-elected for the fourth consecutive time, Canadian taxpayers will continue footing the bill for an expensive welfare state epitomized by its archaic government-run health-care system. Social policy experimentation on issues such as drugs and homosexual rights will continue in an incremental but decidedly progressive direction.

What will happen if Mr. Harper’s Conservatives win? Most important, Canada will have its first leader in living memory who actually believes Big Government is a real problem. A Prime Minister Harper may not be able to pass all the legislation he wants, but he would push to cut taxes and spending and the regulatory burden on Canada’s business sector.

The Liberals count on their overblown reputation for sound economic stewardship over the last decade to carry them across finish line in first place. In addition, a close race will undoubtedly feature much negative advertising. This pretty much guarantees the Liberals will use the nationalism card against the Conservatives. In practice, this means crude anti-American rhetoric to appeal to undecided electors of the vote-rich province of Ontario — the same voters who decided the last election, 17 months ago, following a Liberal campaign that successfully tarred Mr. Harper as “too pro-American.”

The Conservatives, meanwhile, could benefit from a growing public sense that, 12 years after the reins last changed hands, it may be time for a change. This sentiment has been reinforced by the recent judicial investigation into a corruption scandal surrounding the Liberal Party’s past funding of pro-Liberal advertising agencies in Quebec.

Though the judicial report did not implicate Mr. Martin, it documented kickbacks among federal Liberal politicians, senior federal bureaucrats and advertising agency heads, thereby tarnishing the legacy of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Mr. Martin’s predecessor. The findings also have irreparably harmed the Liberals’ short-term prospects in Quebec, a shake-up that has proven a boon to the separatist movement in the populous and predominantly French-speaking province.

Though still a young man in political terms, Stephen Harper may not receive a better opportunity to gain power and to steer Canada in a more conservative direction. If he and his fellow Conservatives can seize this opportunity to recast the policy debate, it will reveal a great deal about the evolving nature of Canadian political culture.

A Harper victory may prove to be the exception to the international rule — a rare foreign event that manages to put a smile on President George W. Bush’s face.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.

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