North and to the Right
Canadian politics isn't known for excitement, but today's national elections could be more meaningful than usual. For the first time in 11 years, our neighbors to the north may take a turn to the right.
The Liberal Party, currently led by 65-year-old Prime Minister Paul Martin, has dominated Ottawa for more than a decade and has steadily pulled the country in a more European direction on both domestic and foreign policy. But this time Mr. Martin is struggling to hold back a challenge from the rejuvenated Conservative Party led by 45-year-old Stephen Harper of Alberta. The late polls were close, with the possibility that either man could have to turn to smaller, minority parties to form a majority government.
The Conservatives are getting help from a corruption scandal involving Mr. Martin's predecessor, Jean Chretien, who stepped aside last year to widespread national relief. But the challengers are also drawing strength from public doubts about Canada's steady drift to the left.
On foreign policy, this has meant a distancing from America that has sometimes veered into French-like hostility. Mr. Martin has worked to repair the damage done to U.S. ties by Mr. Chretien, but he is also trying to tar Mr. Harper with the charge of being too pro-American, especially because of the Conservative's support for deposing Saddam Hussein. It is true that Canadians distrust American power and want a leader who will stand firm on bilateral issues. But as Christopher Sands of the Center for Strategic and International Affairs says, "Canadians have begun to see the deterioration of U.S. relations as fueling a decline in Canadian influence."
Mr. Harper's response has been to assert that Canada and the U.S. should be "able to disagree without being disagreeable," and he seems unembarrassed to concede that Canada's interests will sometimes coincide with America's. He wants to increase Canada's paltry military spending, expand its military ranks to 80,000 from 60,000, withdraw from the Kyoto protocol, and work with the U.S. on anti-terror operations that include deporting individuals who threaten North American security.
On the domestic front, Mr. Harper is also making headway on taxes and health care. The Liberal-run government of Ontario stuck voters with a tax increase in May, hurting Mr. Martin in the province with a third of Canada's voters. Mr. Harper has tried to capitalize by promising to cut middle class taxes, and he hit the tax issue hard in the campaign's final days.
Perhaps most intriguing is the campaign ferment on the heretofore sacrosanct Canadian health care system. National health care is often described as part of Canadian identity, but the government monopoly is also producing chronic shortages and waiting lines for many services, including radiation therapy and joint replacements. The politically influential can jump the queue, while the well-to-do travel to the U.S. for care -- all of which is blowing apart the pretense of "equality" in socialized health care.
Members of both major parties have recommended private delivery of government-funded medicine to alleviate waiting times. But Mr. Harper has made it part of his platform. Mr. Martin, who famously visits a private clinic himself, pledges to defend the monopoly system as it stands and "fix" it with the usual household remedy: more money. Part of his problem is that he's supported by government unions that pull down higher wages because of their monopoly status and oppose any reform.
Granted, none of what Mr. Harper is proposing adds up to a Reagan or Thatcher revolution. But this is Canada we're talking about. It's remarkable enough that he and the Conservatives have a chance to win at all.