As revolutions go, if that’s what the narrow defeat of Canada’s ruling Liberal party by the Conservatives in Monday’s national election can be called, it was a typically Canadian one. By awarding the Conservatives a minority government–the party won most of the seats in parliament but fewer than the opposition parties combined–voters were saying, “We want to give you a try but we don’t really want to hurt the Liberals’ feelings.” Call it the “Excuse Me” Revolution.
Still, although the Conservative margin of victory was not as big as pre-election polls had suggested, it was a momentous comeback for a party once on the endangered-species list. As recently as 1993 the Conservatives won only two seats in the then 295-seat parliament, fighting for their lives against complete extinction. The Liberals, a.k.a. the “natural governing party,” had ruled the country for most of the last 100 years and had come to view elections, with good reason, as foregone conclusions.
But not this time. The Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin, is on the way out and Conservative leader Stephen Harper will be sworn in to head the government.
The Liberals, scandal-plagued and out of ideas, were ugly in their death throes. Most vile among a spate of attack ads released late in the campaign was one that said Harper would put armed troops on the streets of Canadian cities. The implication was that they would be employed as Conservative brown shirts to crush dissent in a coup against democracy.
In a party leaders’ debate two weeks before the election, a desperate Martin, continuing to play the anti-American card so prominent throughout his campaign, tagged Harper as a “Republican.” Translated into Canadian, it’s a label that virtually equals “Nazi.” Two Liberal TV ads that aired in the campaign’s waning days said a victory for Harper would “bring a smile to George W. Bush’s face” and tagged Harper as “pro-Iraq war, anti-Kyoto, Bush’s best friend.”
When Canadians, most of whom dislike the U.S. president, do not respond in sufficient numbers to images linking him with the Conservative leader, it shows they were set on change, however reluctantly. It’s unlikely that even a Liberal charge that Harper would abolish hockey–they somehow missed that one–would have worked.
As the Liberals’ election chances faded it became every person for themselves, with party consultants and even members of parliament pointing fingers publicly over the impending defeat. One Liberal MP said the person responsible for the “troops in Canadian cities” ad was “an idiot.” A party spokeswoman became so unhinged during a TV interview she blurted out “bulls**t” in response to criticism of the Liberals.
Because of their deeply entrenched hubris and unfamiliarity with the opposition benches, defeat hits the Liberals particularly hard. One way to describe their mindset is to recall that moment in the 1992 U.S. presidential debates when the TV camera caught President George H.W. Bush looking impatiently at his watch, as if thinking, “Why do I have to go through this nonsense when I should simply be anointed the winner?”
But while that was just one moment in time, pardon the pun, it has been the prevailing attitude of Canada’s Liberals in election after election for decades. Will some time in the political penalty box help them shake their arrogance? Not likely. The Liberal party has never made humility’s acquaintance.
In one outrageous example, after the Conservatives under John Diefenbaker narrowly defeated the Liberals of Prime Minister Louis St Laurent in 1957, St Laurent’s successor as party leader, Lester Pearson, demanded that Diefenbaker resign and hand the government back to the Liberals, despite the verdict of the voters.
It is worth noting that so repugnant to a Canadian elitist is even the notion of any left-wing party being dethroned, it influenced the analysis of a U.S. election by the late, Canadian-born ABC anchorman Peter Jennings. Unable to recognize that the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 was a combination of disapproval of the Democrats and acceptance of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” Jennings described the voters’ decision as “a national tantrum.”
The Liberal party will likely view its defeat in a similar way, seeing the voters as two year olds who will return the party to power once they stop kicking and screaming and holding their breath. Canada being Canada, a Liberal comeback is inevitable sooner rather than later, but any return to power won’t be with Martin. He will be replaced as leader.
From the U.S. perspective, good riddance. Harper’s victory should mean improved relations between Canada and the U.S., ties left in tatters by a government openly hostile to its southern neighbor. Not only did Martin figuratively stomp on the U.S. flag at every opportunity, but he even stooped to the absurdity of saying–while opting out of a North American missile defense shield–that any missile en route to a target in the U.S., traveling through Canadian airspace, could not be intercepted by the U.S. until Washington first consulted with him. With enemies like that, who needs Hugo Chavez?
Harper has pledged to beef up Canada’s military, a force so inadequate it has been criticized by NATO for its antiquated equipment and inability to be effective. He has also promised to cut taxes, including a two-percent drop in the hated federal sales tax on virtually all goods and services, reduce waiting time for health care, clean up corruption in government, and crack down on crime.
Will the Liberals’ America-bashing end with their defeat? Perhaps not. Among those considered likely to replace Martin as party leader is the current Canadian ambassador to Washington, Frank McKenna. In a recent speech he described the U.S. as “dysfunctional,” said individual members of Congress have too much freedom to vote as they please and suggested the U.S. should change its system of government.
Much of the credit for Martin’s defeat goes to voters in the Liberal stronghold of Ontario, the province with the most parliamentary seats at stake. It was these voters, supporting the Liberals in knee-jerk fashion in the past, who had been the reliable guarantors of the party’s continued success. But Martin’s arrogance, corruption, and sleazy election tactics proved too much for even risk-averse Ontario voters.
The Conservatives also came up big in Quebec, winning seats in a province where it had previously been shut out.
It’s too soon to say it’s “morning in Canada,” but with the Liberals gone for now and the Conservatives bringing a fresh-faced approach to Ottawa, including an energetic team and a desire to have the country defined by its achievements rather than its long-held resentment of achievers, it might be a few minutes past noon.
–An expatriate Canadian, California-based Doug Gamble is a former writer for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He now writes for various politicians and corporate executives.