Returning to the Canadian election, it's almost surprising to discover how quickly Stephen Harper's Conservatives have been eclipsing Paul Martin's Liberals- whereas before the holidays people were musing about a weak Liberal minority, today the numbers seem to indicate that Harper may well win a majority. This is odd, considering that Harper's success seems tied to what are, essentially, progressive policy promises: he's going to cut the Goods and Services Tax (the GST) by 2%, he'll (for all intents and purposes) replace the old "baby bonus" where parents get cash each month for their kids, and a series of carefully-targeted income tax cuts. There are lots of non-progressive elements to his platform, of course, but there's nothing as retrogressive as in the previous policy platforms he's advocated.
Yet, as most Canadians are no doubt aware, it's extraordinarily unlikely that he has himself become in any way "liberal", or even really moderate. He has carefully constructed a bland inoffensive persona, but there is a world of difference between that and his true opinions. The controversial attack ads by the Liberals that quote his old attacks on Canada as being "socialist, in the worst sense of the word" speak to this, and are clearly intended to remind people that despite the progressive policies, he isn't one himself.
Yet, it isn't working, not really. People are so distrustful of the Liberals that they won't believe that the quotations are real, and not pulled out of context; they see the bland persona and match it with the quotes and come out in favor of the persona.
Also, the media's reaction has been odd too: while they used to be somewhat hostile to the Conservatives and the old Reform party that still makes up the majority of their members, now they're almost embarrassingly friendly, and astonishingly hostile to the Liberal party, considering their past positions. Even the publicly-funded CBC has moved in this direction, despite the zealous free-marketeer Harper being the worst possible person to control the purse strings of a public broadcaster. Forget strategic calculation on behalf of the CBC, the very fact that they're public employees should incline them to skepticism of Harper's libertarian mantras, yet that hasn't happened.
Because of the myth of the "time out".
It seems that everybody in Canada, media and public alike, wants something like the Liberal party to be running the show. The Conservatives' current policies read like something Martin would draft in the 1990's. They're angry and fed up with the perceived corruption of the Liberal party, and the factionalism within the party- that underpins Martin's unspoken "I was shut out because Chretien hated me" defense of his non-involvement in the sponsorship scandal- is either forgotten or ignored. They believe that the Liberal party has been in power too long, and needs a "time out". Like a willful child, they should be sent to the corner for a little while to calm down and think things through, so they can come back and be a better party.
The problem? If the Liberals lose, I truly doubt that anything like this is going to happen. The Conservatives will do whatever they can to cement their hold on the country- they're essentially Bush republicans without a drawl, and we've seen the games that Republicans will play in order to retain power. There's no guarantee that the Liberal party will return in anything like its present form, or that the Conservatives won't poison the well to the extent that the Liberals could never get anything done.
(The devolution of powers to the provinces is an excellent example- once done, it cannot be reversed, and a weak federal government would make it extremely difficult for the Liberals to do anything when they regain 24 Sussex. Harper doesn't care, because he has come not to praise Canada, but to bury it- to make the provinces so relatively powerful that Canada becomes no more united than the European Union. The Liberals, however, are the party of the center, and of a single Canadian identity.)
(Gutting public broadcasting won't help, either.)
Even if the Conservatives are unsuccessful in neutering the federal government, the Liberal party is very unlikely to sit down and think things through. The whole problem with it is that it's riddled with viciously infighting factions, so much so that it's an open question as to whether Chretien supporters are deliberately sabotaging the campaign. If the Liberals lose big, then the factions will only get worse, as both Chretien and Martin's lieutenants blame each other for what happened.
That fight is unlikely to end well: both factions are responsible. Chretien's faction is responsible for the scandals that created this situation in the first place. Warren Kinsella may dodge around it with all the skill of an old political operative, but the fact remains that the so-called "Adscam" happened under the watch of his old boss and his allies, who thought that their mission to fight the seperatists was more important than anything else, including legality. They then left the scandal to afflict Martin's government; while I only speculated about "poisoning the well" on Harper's part, it damned well happened with Chretien.
On the other hand, Martin couldn't have more badly misread the reaction to the scandal. He hoped that by distancing himself from his predecessor, he would escape the fallout from it. He forgot that to the average layman, there is one Liberal party, and they will blame ALL Liberals for what happened. That is what's happening now- even after Gomery exonerated Martin and his allies from responsibility, the scandal is still a millstone around his neck. Martin thought that he could distance himself from his own party- unfortunately, Franklin's old comment that "we must hang together, or we will most assuredly hang seperately" has never been truer.
Both, however, are at fault for the policy weakness of the Liberal party. Chretien seemed obsessed only with winning elections; people were complaining for almost his entire period of governance that his government was listless and without a core political philosophy to draw on. His biggest legacy remains almost losing the country in 1993.
Martin, in turn, had a lot of ideas, but they were often contradictory and he never fully reconciled himself with jettisoning them in order to protect a minority government. All the comments about the "democratic deficit" were clearly intended to reflect on the flaws of Canadian majority governments, not minority governments; a minority government that does not keep discipline does not keep intact, and the next election is always in the back of the leaders' minds. The comments he made about a better relationship with the Americans also didn't survive the Republicans' rightward rush following 9/11; he knew that Canadians were deeply troubled by what they saw to the south, and many were angry over American duplicity on trade, so he could not both keep domestic support up and please Washington. He had to choose, and he chose nationalism over continentalism.
(Yes, it was a political choice, but it was a political choice in the best sense of the term: a politician reacting to the public's will, on an subject where policy is indeterminate and human rights are not the issue.)
He never fully explained the reasons for these choices, and never quite broke with his past. He never fully admitted that the quasi-conservative Martin of the Liberal leadership race is dead and buried, but tried to have it both ways.
So, with both sides to blame, neither side can claim ascendancy, and neither side can really heal the wounds. A third force would need to emerge in order to bring things together, and I think that's what everybody is hoping for, but that third force has not shown itself yet. More importantly, the Liberal party needs to come to terms with its own nature as a liberal democratic party, but the infighting that will follow a loss to the once-hapless Harper by a truly hapless Liberal campaign is unlikely to provide the forum for effective debate of political philosophy. Especially when Harper essentially ran with a Liberal policy platform in a differently colored book.
Instead of rebuilding itself during this "time out", the Liberal party may well tear itself apart. I doubt Harper and his Calgary base will shed a tear, but I suspect that the rest of the country isn't going to like the results of their tactical choice. This "time out" could end up longer than anybody expected, with results few would welcome.
Harper is NOT a progressive, and not a stand-in for the Liberals. Canada will learn that, to its sorrow. I just hope the damage he'll do can be fixed.