CANADIANS SENT a message to the political establishment in Ottawa on Monday night that will reverberate for years. The message turned out to be different than either of the two major parties expected or wanted, neither an outright rejection of one nor an embrace of the other.
Their message: We're not afraid to test our options, but the alternatives must earn the public trust before being given full power.
When the money-laundering and influence-peddling scandal surrounding the Sponsorship Programme first broke open two years ago, the conventional wisdom held that corruption alone would not be enough to move Canadians to replace their Liberal government. The national economy had improved and stabilized during more than a decade of Liberal rule, first under Jean Chrétién and then Paul Martin. The government had decent relations with the United States but had avoided entangling the nation in the Iraq war, which most Canadians rejected as unnecessary; Martin had stood up to Washington on trade and environmental issues, as well as missile defense. Besides, the Conservatives had only recently pieced themselves together after years of infighting, and Stephen Harper seemed to many like an unseasoned cipher.
In 2005, that political ennui appeared to dissipate. The Gomery hearings and the explosive testimony of Jean Breault made clear just how corrupt the ruling party had become, and the electorate suddenly appeared poised for change. Only through last-minute deal-making with Jack Layton and the NDP was Paul Martin able to stave off a no-confidence motion in May, when the testimony went public. The $5.4 billion deal on health care only bought the Liberals another six months, as Layton finally bowed to public pressure and joined the Tories and the Bloc Québécois in toppling the Liberals last November.
The Conservatives ran a smart campaign behind the somewhat elusive Stephen Harper, who issued policy statements in a series of speeches that quickly put the Liberals on the defensive. They made only marginal references to the financial scandals enveloping the Liberals, even when a fresh one broke out at the beginning of the campaign involving Finance Minister Ralph Goodale's office and insider trading at the Toronto Stock Exchange. The Liberals, on the other hand, waited until after Christmas to launch their campaign. When the polling data showed the Tories sailing ahead of them across the nation, the party panicked and launched some of the crudest negative advertising in recent memory. One televised ad showed the Canadian army occupying the nation's cities at the behest of a Conservative government, repulsing even Liberal politicians. Even a last-ditch foray into the usually-profitable strategy of America-bashing brought nothing but scorn from Canadian voters, leaving Paul Martin swinging at air in the last few days of the election.
With pollsters showing huge leads for the Tories--some as high as sixteen points nationwide--pundits and optimistic Conservatives predicted a landslide for the CPC and a majority government for Stephen Harper. Even Liberals started talking about the danger they faced of possibly falling into third place in the Commons, a result that would have been unimaginable just weeks earlier.
And yet, even with all of the Liberal's corruption and incompetence on full display, Canadians voted for a minority Tory government, giving the CPC only 124 seats in the Commons and allowing the Liberals to form the opposition with 103. What happened?
It appears that Canadians want change, but on their terms. The thin plurality means that the Conservatives will have to work with the other three parties to pass their legislative agenda, which will force them to keep a moderate approach. Harper will have to convince Layton or Gilles Duceppe of the BQ to support the creation of any new programs or the curtailment of existing ones before attempting to push his budget and policies through Parliament. His only alternative will be to work directly with the new Liberal leadership by broad consensus. Either way, the scare-mongering of Liberal electioneering will not come to pass; there will be no dismantling of the national health-care system, nor will Canadian troops be parachuting into Baghdad by March.
On the other hand, Harper's government will be capable of incremental changes. Canada is not likely join the United States in Iraq, but Harper will prove a closer partner in the war on terror and in tightening immigration in North America. He may also reverse the reversal of Paul Martin and entertain a Canadian partnership in missile defense. The Tories won't pass any corporate giveaways but they will be looking to cut taxes with the unpopular GST a likely starting point. They will also focus on fulfilling election promises, a child-care initiative among them. Most worrisome for the Liberals will be the ability of the new government to investigate the worst excesses of the old, but the split in Commons will prevent a wholesale dumping of the Ottawa bureaucracy overnight.
Some pundits diagnosed this result as a short leash for all political parties and a rebuke towards the Liberals for their corruption. Conservative Diane Ablonczy, newly elected MP from Calgary-Nose Hill, gave voice to this sentiment during an Election Night celebration in her riding. She called the result a "test drive" for the Tories and welcomed the approach. Ablonczy told the CBC that she was certain the Tories would prove a satisfying product for Canadian voters. The electorate, which had been dismissed as unengaged and indifferent, proved wiser than all of the pundits in their predictions. They have given Harper and his party a fair chance at showing they can govern responsibly and responsively--and they may well buy the car outright if they enjoy the test drive.
Edward Morrissey is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Captain's Quarters.