Stephen Harper, a 43-year-old politician from Calgary, became the leader of the newly formed right-wing Canadian Alliance in 2002. One year later, he managed to unite his party with the Progressive Conservative Party to form the Conservative Party of Canada. On January 23, 2006, Mr. Harper—against all odds—brought an end to 12 years of Liberal Party rule, becoming the 22nd prime minister of Canada.
Harper’s opponents accuse him of being a right-wing ideologue with a hidden agenda designed to roll back abortion rights, nullify Canada’s acceptance of “gay marriages,” join the war in Iraq, and override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. None of this is likely to happen.
Harper’s Conservative Party won the election by a narrow margin, and he now finds himself the prime minister of a minority government. His party won 124 of the 308 seats in parliament and gained 36 percent of the total votes cast. The Liberal Party won 103 seats with 30 percent. The separatist Bloc Québécois won 51 seats; the socialist New Democratic Party, 29. Consequently, if he wishes to retain power, Harper must get the support of other parties in the House of Commons.
This should not be hard to do. Paul Martin, the Liberal leader, has stepped down, and the party now faces the difficult task of replacing him. The other parties will not be keen to bring the new government down. After two elections in two years, voters are not looking forward to another one any time soon.
The Conservatives will likely have a year, or maybe two, to implement the major elements of their election plat- form. The first priority will be to restore accountability to government. One of the primary reasons for the Liberal Party defeat was that it was seen as a party of entitlement and corruption. Its former leader, Jean Chrétien, had presided over a number of financial scandals involving hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly spent to counteract the rise of separatist sentiment in Quebec. In fact, much of the money was siphoned off by officials or friends of the party.
These revelations shocked Canadians and gave Mr. Harper the opportunity he needed to run on the promise to restore integrity and accountability to government. Despite protestations by Paul Martin that he had not been aware of these illegal transactions, his credibility and that of the Liberal Party were seriously damaged. This was especially true in Quebec, the former Liberal stronghold, where only 13 Liberals were elected out of a possible 75 seats.
Harper also promised to reduce the federal sales tax and to introduce a childcare program that would give families $100 per month for each child under the age of six. Both proposals were popular with families burdened with a heavy tax load and with stagnating disposable incomes. He promised to introduce mandatory sentencing for crimes involving firearms, scrap the expensive and controversial firearms registry, and use the money saved to put more police on the streets.
One of Mr. Harper’s major campaign promises was to correct the fiscal imbalance between the central government and the provinces and to stop incursions by Ottawa into matters that fall under provincial jurisdiction. This will be one of his biggest challenges; any diminution of central power may play into the hands of a resurgent separatist party in Quebec.
Strident attempts by the Liberals to identify Harper with President Bush and the neoconservatives did not frighten Canadian voters. Harper’s promise to reconsider signing on to the U.S. missile-defense program and to increase Canadian military spending suggest that the Conservatives are firmly committed to improving relations with the United States.
Harper’s victory has turned Canadian politics on its head. The conservative rebirth has signaled that the focus of Canadian economic power is shifting from central Canada to the energy-rich provinces of the west. It might also be seen as a reaction against the rapid pace of social and demographic change that has swept across Canada in the past two decades under the leadership of the Liberal Party. It is significant that the Conservatives failed to win any seats in metropolitan Toronto, where almost 50 percent of the population is foreign-born, and gained little support in the other two major urban centers, Montreal and Vancouver.