For many Americans, Canada has become biggest Blue State of them all. Long known for its liberal views on social issues, strong welfare state, and internationalist foreign policies, Canada has lately solidified its reputation as a North American “Mini-Me” of Scandinavian social democracy. Since 2003, when The Economist proclaimed it “Cool Canada,” the country ratified the Kyoto Protocol; refused to join President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq; and effectively legalized same-sex marriage. In the wake of another Republican triumph in 2004, a map widely circulated on the Internet divided North America into a Red State Republican “Jesusland” and “United States of Canada.”
Politically, the two countries seem to be going in opposite directions. Unlike Republicans, Canadian conservatives have been in the political wilderness for two decades. Conservatives have not won an election since 1988. The last nominally conservative party, the deeply unpopular Progressive Conservatives, was demolished during the 1993 election; the party was reduced to two seats from 169 (the greatest meltdown of a governing party in modern Western democratic history). Since then, Liberals have won four straight national elections -- a “friendly dictatorship,” according to some.
Yet Canadian Conservatives are on the verge of a triumphant return to power. Why is reliably liberal Canada about to fall to the heretofore hopeless Conservatives? The Conservatives' recent boost in popularity certainly isn't about leadership. Party leader Stephen Harper is the closest thing to a Republican clone that Canadians have seen in a national leader. Harper, who once likened Canada to a “second-tier socialist country,” cut his teeth as a conservative policy guru in the 1980s, advocating the end of public health care, bilingualism, and multiculturalism -- all shibboleths of the Canadian left.
In the 1990s, Harper headed the National Citizens Coalition, a right-wing lobby group that is Canada's answer to the American Enterprise Institute. The NCC (“If you believe in free enterprise, individual freedom and personal responsibility under limited government, you've come to the right place”) was founded in 1967 by an Ontario millionaire determined to end Canada's universal healthcare system. Harper even dabbled in pseudo-separatist rhetoric, arguing in 2000 that his conservative home province of Alberta effectively disengage from Canada by building a political “firewall” around the province.
As leader of the reconstituted conservative movement since 2003, Harper unabashedly courted evangelical Christians, who saw him as “their” socially conservative candidate; he even appeared on FOX News Channel and wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece demanding that Canada join the Iraq invasion. But with meager personal approval ratings, the cold and uncharismatic Harper has not inspired the groundswell of Conservative support.
Nor is the upsurge due to Conservative policies. The party's positions have been outside the resolutely moderate mainstream, making Conservatives unelectable in an increasingly urban Canada (they hold no seats in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver). Harper's efforts to soften his party's extreme image by jettisoning many long-standing Conservative goals have proven unconvincing. The party has moved to the middle on a host of issues and even stated that it will not legislate on abortion (leaving no Canadian party with an official anti-abortion stance); but its privatizing, tax-cutting, law-and-order positions -- and pro-Bush foreign policies -- do not resonate with Canadians.
Yet, despite the unpopularity of Conservative leadership and policies, the party seems poised to win the next election, which could be as soon as this summer. Indeed, owing to the minority status of the governing Liberals, the Conservatives are determined to defeat the government in the House of Commons and force an election as soon as possible -- one they stand a good chance of winning, according to most recent polls.
So why would Canadians vote against their ingrained social and political interests by electing a Conservative party led by a hard-core libertarian and social conservative?
Driving the Conservatives' ascendance is a typically Canadian scandal. Following the 1995 Quebec independence referendum, the Liberals took a multi-pronged approach to fighting separatism in the province. This included boosting Canada's profile in Quebec by spending $250 million to sponsor numerous cultural and community events, from car races to county fairs. Canadians have since learned, however, that up to $100 million was given to Liberal-friendly advertising agencies, which did little real work for the money. Most damning, however, are allegations that hundreds of thousands of dollars were actually funneled back to the Liberal Party by these agencies. In effect, the taxpayers of Canada were funding the reelection efforts of the Liberal Party of then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
Canadians are justifiably outraged. Dubbed “Adscam” by the right-wing press, some have breathlessly declared it the “biggest” scandal in Canadian history. Sensing their chance to break the Liberal stranglehold on government, Conservatives have declared that the alleged corruption denies the Liberals the moral authority to govern, even if current Prime Minister Paul Martin has not been linked to the scandal by any “smoking gun.”
But any election will not be won on scandalmongering alone. The beleaguered Liberals, often referred to as the “natural governing party,” are fighting back. They have struck a deal with the small socialist New Democratic Party to spend more money on social programs and foreign aid in an effort to boost their left wing. Many Canadians simply don't believe that Harper won't take an ax to these cherished programs if he gains office.
Nonetheless, Canadians are fatigued with a party that has been in power for 12 years and is irrefutably tainted with the whiff of scandal. Despite the progressive proclivities of the Canadian electorate, Harper and the Conservatives may overthrow the Liberals -- an unexpected triumph for the right in a country dominated by liberalism.
Does the Canadian case have any lessons for Democrats in the United States? There may be parallels between a tired Liberal Party steeped in corruption in Canada and the arrogance and scandals of the Republicans -- or the insurrectionist Democratic and Conservative efforts to overthrow their ensconced adversaries. Even Tom DeLay's ethical problems are reminiscent of Liberal troubles in Canada. But if anything, the case simply shows that Canadians seem to have different standards for their politicians. Pundits have noted that the Canadian sponsorship scandal is small potatoes: In the United States and the United Kingdom, leaders essentially lied to start a war that killed thousands, and they were reelected. Yet in Canada, a leader who likely had nothing to do with, admittedly, a criminally managed program -- nominally done in the name of national unity -- is about to get unceremoniously dumped.
Dimitry Anastakis teaches history at Trent University in Canada and was a Fulbright visiting scholar at Michigan State University in 2003.