Henry Srebrnik, The Calgary Herald
Is it possible that the Liberals may actually lose the election? Prime Minister Paul Martin has tried to distance himself from a decade of Liberal rule and make people forget that he was a senior minister in the government.
But might he go the way of other leaders who, upon taking office, tried to reform corrupt political machines, only to be swept away by the tides of change? Voters often punish the available messenger, not his departed predecessors. Two recent examples come to mind.
After ruling Mexico continuously for seven decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), seeing the writing on the wall, belatedly began instituting political changes, but were swept away by Vicente Fox, who became president in 2000.
And the last Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985 and tried to radically alter the Communist Party, was forced to step down in 1991. People responded with enthusiasm to his policy of "glasnost" (openness), but it did not save his regime.
It's hard to envision such an outcome in this country, though. After all, even former Tory leader Joe Clark has stated that he would prefer a Martin Liberal government to a Conservative one headed by Stephen Harper. In turn, and not surprisingly, many members of the new Conservative Party of Canada have denounced Clark as a "traitor."
But Clark can be defined in such terms only if we think of the old Progressive Conservative Party as an "opposition" party. In fact, the now defunct PCs, along with the Liberals and the New Democratic Party, all adhered to a broad policy consensus about what defines Canada. Indeed, the so-called red Tory wing was often to the left of the Liberals in its social views. All three were, to use a European term, "parties of state," that is, the ones that supported the status quo hegemony of the left-liberal, secular, redistributionist, bilingual, multicultural non-ethnic state that is Trudeauvian Canada.
They upheld the "pays legale" (legal country), referring to the state's constitutional order. The Reform (later Canadian Alliance) and Bloc Quebecois parties were the true opposition.
There has been a subtle party realignment in Canada over the past few months. Most of the old red Tories have been absorbed into the Liberal Party -- Clark's endorsement of Martin has made that clear. Some might even move all the way to the communitarian NDP.
The new Conservatives are, whether they like the label or not, an enlarged version of the Alliance, because that's how the "parties of state" will define them ideologically. Martin and NDP Leader Jack Layton have already begun doing so.
And this is also the reason Layton's attempt to paint Harper and Martin as political twins won't ring true with the electorate. In reality, Layton and Martin are on the same side of the ideological divide.
The sponsorship scandal has benefited the NDP as well as the new Conservatives and the Bloc. The Conservatives in English Canada, and the Bloc even more so in Quebec, have had the better of the anti-Liberal backlash. Since the NDP also upholds the left-liberal consensus that favours big government, it has found it harder to fight abuses of power in a public sector, rather than corporate, scandal.
In English-speaking Canada, two "parties of state," the Liberals (strengthened with the stealth-like entry of old PCs), and the NDP will face as their opponents the new Conservative Party. In francophone Quebec, one "party of state," the Liberals, will confront the other true opposition party, the Bloc.
Clearly, it is Harper the Liberals will be going after outside Quebec, in attack ads designed to define him as a danger to the country. Martin told his caucus in the last days before the House of Commons adjourned that Harper's are "not Canadian values." The Liberals have launched a website (stephenharpersaid.ca) full of Harper quotes that portray him as a right-winger with extreme views.
Is it possible Joe McCarthy didn't die in 1957 but moved up to Canada and is now working for a Liberal-friendly ad agency? With all of these difficulties, it is unlikely Harper can win. And should the Liberals retain office following the spate of scandals that have been uncovered, and given the negative campaign they have unleashed, no one could blame them for assuming that they govern Canada by divine right.