Toronto–For the second time in 18 months, Canadians are about to head to the ballot box. After weeks of desperate political maneuvering, the governing Liberals lost control of parliament, lost a key vote of confidence, and now may well lose the coming election. A dozen years of uninterrupted Liberal governance could end–with major implications for the party and the welfare state it so strongly supports.
There’s an old joke that Toronto is like New York, if the Swiss ran the Big Apple. Americans view Toronto and the rest of the country as clean, unexciting, and a bit boring. Canadian politics, too, seems uninspired. The Liberal party of Canada has been like the Yankees of old: winning again and again. Around the time the Babe helped lift his team to its first World Series, the Liberals began consistently winning national elections–and didn’t really stop. In the past eight decades, the Liberals spent just 16 years on the opposition benches.
And yet, today, their support is stuck at about 33 percent–the lowest polling in nearly two decades. Why the slip in popularity? Start with a good old-fashioned scandal. In 2004, the auditor general caused a political earthquake, reporting that a federal government program intended to promote Canadian unity in separation-minded Quebec was, in fact, rife with corruption. Liberal-friendly advertising firms received millions of dollars from the federal government and then funneled some of the money back to the Liberals. Trying to contain the damage, the governing party ordered an immediate judicial inquiry, headed by Mr. Justice John Gomery. But–aware of just how damaging revelations would be–they called an election in June of that year before any of the facts were established. The Liberals managed to win, but only a minority government.
This spring, the nation was captivated by the televised hearings of the Gomery Commission. No wonder–witness after witness painted a picture of scandal befitting any banana republic: bribes, intimidation, kickbacks, phony invoices, and money laundering. The details are breathtaking. Key players went by code names like “Choo Choo Man” and “White Head.” Mysterious suitcases filled with cash were distributed to Liberal candidates, for instance at a campaign rally attended by the entire Cabinet. When the executive director of the Quebec wing discovered that his party was effectively run by an organized crime boss, he objected–and was threatened, he testified, with death. And there were direct ties to the former prime minister: One of his friends is alleged to have received roughly $5 million for work that was never done; Jean Chretien’s brother, it is alleged, got a brown envelope with cash; and his son and niece, jobs.
Liberal fortunes have not been helped by the anemic performance of Prime Minister Paul Martin, Jr. To stay in office, he has promised everything to everyone. During a particularly frantic three-week period this fall, his government’s spending announcements exceeded $20 billion (the whole federal budget is $160 billion). Finally, with an eye on wooing Canada’s middle class, he announced massive tax cuts this month–but most of the relief will not be realized until 2010.
The Liberals’ woes, however, run deeper than this scandal and Martin’s handling of it. For years, Canadians have had an unwritten compact with the party: We’d pay high taxes and keep reelecting them and, in exchange, the Liberals would run the country competently. Obviously, the scandal has tarnished their image as astute managers. But even before, the deal was falling apart. With taxes rising steadily over the past decade, after-tax income has essentially stagnated. Yet Canada’s welfare state is rotten to the core.
Take Canada’s much vaunted health-care system. In a recent poll, more than 80 percent of Canadians rate the system “in crisis.” People wait for practically any diagnostic test, surgical procedure, or specialist consult. The doctors’ shortage is so severe that, in Norwood, Ont., winning the town lottery isn’t a ticket to material wealth. With just one family doctor to service the entire town, the physician takes only 50 new patients a year. As a result, the town holds an annual lottery with the 50 winners getting an appointment with him.
The plight of Norwood is not unusual. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 1.2 million Canadians don’t have a family doctor and are looking for one. American companies now routinely advertise in major Canadian dailies, offering timely health care–in the United States. And north of the 49th parallel, private health services are a booming business despite the fact that many operate in violation of federal law. The prime minister’s own family doctor, incidentally, runs the most successful chain of private clinics in the country.
Health care is just one example of Canada’s welfare state gone awry. Ottawa transfers billions of dollars annually from richer provinces to poorer ones–yet, after decades, the funding hasn’t resolved poverty in Atlantic Canada and the prairies. In fact, these programs have institutionalized the poverty. In an effort to bolster some ailing industries, the federal government has ended up subsidizing the largest corporations in the country. Cultural grants, meant to strengthen the arts, have become a parody–funding, for example, Quebec’s burgeoning soft-porn industry. Canadians have noticed: asked in a poll recently if they trusted the federal government to do what was right, 27 percent of Canadians responded in the affirmative; in the late 1960s, 58 percent agreed with the statement.
For his part, Stephen Harper, who leads the Conservative party, offers a cautious alternative. An economist by training, Harper doesn’t propose turning Canada into a libertarian nation–but he does promise to reverse the nation’s slow Europeanization. He supports modest tax cuts, an end to corporate welfare, and the betterment of strained Canada-U.S. relations. With regard to the proverbial third rail of Canadian politics, he favors greater use of private services within government-run health care–a modest, if important, first step for a system so beleaguered that a family doctor is now considered a luxury item.
If he wins, Stephen Harper will not be a Margaret Thatcher. However, he may prove to be a Tony Blair–and that would be a refreshing change from “Choo Choo Man” and his friends.
–David Gratzer, a physician, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.