What to Expect from Canada's New Leader

  • Share
  • Read Later
"Tonight, friends, our great country has voted for change," Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper told a raucous Calgary crowd Monday night after it was clear he will be the country's next Prime Minister. The vote-for-change part was true to the extent that a Canadian opposition party had finally displaced the Liberal party after 12 years in power, prompting Prime Minister Paul Martin to step down as Liberal leader. But it's less clear how much more Harper can deliver than a change of personnel in government: The Tories' failure to muster a majority—they won only 124 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons—means that Harper's more ambitious campaign promises may be beyond reach, for now. Still, if the 46-year-old Harper is able to call up all of the strategic smarts he's exhibited during his quarter century in politics, he may just be able to remake the Canadian political landscape while steadying Ottawa's rocky relationship with Washington. If not, expect the long-ruling Liberals to be back in office within two years.

The Conservative leader's first challenge will be to win the trust of Canada's still predominantly liberal-minded public. A star disciple of the University of Calgary's decidedly right-wing political science school, Harper has spent most of his adult life far to the right of the Canadian political center. But over the last five years, he has undergone a remarkable makeover, transforming his image from that of a brooding hard-right policy wonk into a cuddly mainstream hockey dad. Monday's results show he still has trouble connecting with many segments of the electorate, particularly urban voters—the Conservatives were practically shut out of central Canada's two biggest cities, Toronto and Montreal. Another obstacle: The Conservatives have no natural allies among the other parties in Parliament—the Liberals, the New Democrats and the separatist Bloc Québécois, all of which tend to lean to the left, especially on social issues.

Still, Harper has proven he should not be underestimated. When a non-confidence vote toppled Martin's government in November, a Harper victory seemed far-fetched despite the Liberal Party's reputation being badly tarnished by corruption scandals, especially in Quebec. The eight-week campaign had been expected to be more or less a rerun of the previous election in spring 2004, with the same four leaders, the same negative insult-trading and the same result: a Liberal minority. Pundits had also predicted an election campaign that took place in the midst of a frozen, dark Canadian winter would generate less public interest than any election in Canada's 138-year history.

Instead, something unexpected happened—an issue-based campaign that encouraged Canadians to think and make choices. Typical of the dichotomy presented to voters was the issue of child care: The Liberals wanted to continue a program to build or augment child-care facilities across Canada; the Conservatives promised a bit of that too, but their principal campaign plank was to offer a child-care payment of $1,000 to parents for each child under the age of six. "The differences in values between Stephen Harper and myself could not be greater," was a sentiment that Martin was apt to repeat during the campaign. That was partly true, but somewhere along the line Canadians appeared to have concluded that the relatively moderate policies being offered by the Tory campaign were not anathema to their own values.

If it wins some room to maneuver, a Harper government should ease the strains in the U.S.-Canada relationship. Though candidate Harper kept a discreet distance from most things American, he is expected to take a less adversarial stance toward the neighbor to the south than recent Liberal governments have. Harper is planning to pump $5 billion more into the Canadian military over the next five years than Martin had planned to do; he shares President George W. Bush's skepticism over the Kyoto Climate Change Accord; and unlike Martin he supports the U.S. missile defense plan. But if nothing else, Harper will help improve ties with the White House because he offers to be a breath of fresh air in U.S.-Canada relations, says Christopher Sands, senior associate at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If there is any wrinkle of a grin at Harper being elected, it would be [Bush thinking,] OK, somebody new. It wouldn't be, OK, this guy's my kind of guy."

The most profound change to come out of a Harper administration, however, may be a rebalancing of federal-provincial relations in Canada. Unlike the centrist Liberals, Harper has promised to shift some taxation powers from Ottawa to the provinces. That would fulfill a key demand of provinces like Quebec, where a resurgent separatist movement is causing new worries in the rest of Canada. If Harper can make the nation feel a little more secure on that touchy issue, he may be around for a long time to come.