Canada, one of the most stable democracies in the world, is about to enter a period of political uncertainty that threatens the country’s national unity.
Canadians go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new government. The ruling Liberal party has governed for more than a decade. The Liberals have a potent political machine and a remarkable ability to hold on to power. They have held office for 28 of the last 38 years. During that time, the Liberals have pushed the country to the left. They have transformed Canada into a milk-toast version of France: the nation is characterized by a bloated welfare state, high taxes, a permissive social culture and a dovish foreign policy.
Canadians, especially those in the English-speaking provinces of Ontario and in the West, appear to have had enough with their country’s slide toward international irrelevance and economic mediocrity. The Conservatives, led by the youthful-looking Stephen Harper, are surging ahead in the polls. Mr. Harper is running on a platform of tax cuts, honest government and rebuilding close ties with the United States.
The Conservatives are also benefiting from Prime Minister Paul Martin’s dismal electoral campaign. Mr. Martin has failed to articulate an inspiring vision for the country. His government is ideologically and morally bankrupt; it is devoid of new ideas and has been crippled by numerous scandals.
Mr. Martin has been most damaged by charges of corruption. Recently, Canadians were shocked to discover a massive kickback scheme, in which hundreds of millions of dollars were funneled to well-connected Liberals from an anti-separatist ad campaign in Quebec. The government-sponsored campaign was intended to promote the virtues of federalism. Instead, vast amounts of money were siphoned off to Liberal cronies.
Quebec nationalists have exploited the issue. They charge the Liberal scandal is the clearest example yet of the dysfunctional nature of Canadian federalism. Quebec’s pro-independence movement is on the rise again. The separatist Bloc Quebecois party, which is on the ballotonly in Quebec, will likely dominate the province’s electoral landscape.
Ironically, many prairie populists in the Western provinces agree with Quebec nationalists on one key point: Canada’s political and constitutional system needs root-and-branch reform. For decades, conservative populists have railed against big government and centralized authority. They have called for smaller and smarter government, as well as greater devolution of power to the provinces. Revelations of Liberal graft have only hardened Western populists’ desire for sweeping change.
The Conservatives’ electoral heartland is in the West. Mr. Harper understands the region’s deep frustration. He vows to give the provinces an increased voice in national affairs. This promise plays well with his base. But the country’s traditional political establishment is alarmed — especially old-style Liberals still dreaming of a centralized, social-democratic federal state.
The rise of Quebec separatism and increased Western alienation are slowly splintering the Canadian federation into polarized regional blocs. This is ominous for Canada: The eventual break-up of the country looms ever closer.
A decisive Conservative victory is needed not only to restore public integrity but to foster political stability and economic vitality. Mr. Harper’s policies of decentralization, constitutional reform and tax cuts will bolster economic growth and strengthen national cohesion.
Mr. Harper’s biggest problem, however, is that he may not get the parliamentary majority he needs to enact his agenda.
Facing defeat at the polls, the Liberals have played the trump card of anti-Americanism. Mr. Martin has blamed Canada’s soaring gang violence on the influx of guns from south of the border. He opposes national missile defense. He has accused Mr. Harper of secretly wanting to send troops to Iraq. A Liberal radio ad even claims that “Harper equals Bush.”
The America-bashing will not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But it may prevent the Conservatives from getting an electoral majority. Polls show a minority Conservative government the most likely outcome.
In that case, Mr. Harper will be left with a weak and ineffective government. Vital reforms will not be made. The West will continue to seethe. Quebec nationalism will continue growing. And tragically, Canada will continue to crumble.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a regular contributor to the Commentary Pages at The Washington Times and editor of Insight on the News (www.insightmag.com).