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Lawmakers in Canada Oust Government

Amid his party's corruption scandal, Prime Minister Paul Martin loses a vote of confidence. A January election is expected.

November 29, 2005|Christopher Guly | Special to The Times

OTTAWA — With his party tainted by a corruption scandal, Prime Minister Paul Martin lost a confidence vote in Parliament on Monday, and the government said Canadians would have to head to the polls for a new election in January.

Martin is expected to set the election for Jan. 23 after visiting Governor-General Michaelle Jean, the country's constitutional head of state, this morning to request that Parliament be dissolved. It will be the second election in less than two years.

Although Martin had said he didn't want to subject voters to a Christmastime campaign, the prime minister declared Monday that he would get to work courting voters.

In the last general election in June 2004, Martin's Liberal Party won only 135 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. He has presided over a minority government ever since in alliance with the left-of-center New Democratic Party, which holds 18 seats.

"Let's get started -- we have a campaign to run," the 67-year-old Martin told Liberals after the 171-133 vote that brought down his administration.

The prime minister said the party had a "lot to be proud of," noting that Canada had had "eight straight [federal] budget surpluses" since 1996, six of them during his time as finance minister prior to winning the leadership two years ago.

At the start of the month, it looked as if Martin might retain his grip on power after an investigation into a 1997-2001 national unity advertising campaign.

The inquiry found that Liberal Party officials had channeled millions of dollars in public funds to ad firms that kicked back money to the party. The ad campaign was promoting national unity in French-speaking Quebec to stave off rising separatist sentiment in the province.

The investigation strongly chastised former Prime Minister Jean Chretien for the scandal. Although Martin was finance minister at the time, the inquiry concluded that he was not aware of the scam or responsible for the money's handling.

Martin quickly endorsed the report and declared that he was the man to lead the cleanup of his party. But he was never able to shake the threat of a no-confidence vote, which finally came Monday.

In the last few weeks, Martin's government has announced about $17 billion in aid for the softwood lumber industry and new social programs, and about $25 billion in tax cuts, prompting accusations from the opposition that he has been trying to buy voters' support.

After Monday's vote, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper rallied his supporters, saying the collapse of Martin's government was "not just the end of a scandal-plagued government," but the start of a "bright new future" for Canada when his party forms the next government.

However, recent polls show the Liberals winning between 34% and 38% of the vote and holding on to power.

Toronto-based pollster Conrad Winn said the race could hinge on Quebec, where the separatist Bloc Quebecois party holds 53 of the province's 75 seats.

Winn said the fallout from the scandal probably meant the Liberals wouldn't make any inroads and could lose some of the 21 Commons seats they hold in the province.

Though Conservatives aren't likely to gain those seats, prospective losses for the Liberals in Quebec could sap the party of momentum and persuade wavering voters there to switch their allegiance to the Conservatives "out of anger" over the kickback scandal, explained Winn, president of COMPAS Research.

The likelihood, though, is that the Liberals will prevail by warning voters that a Conservative victory would "turn the clock back 1,200 years" on social policy, he said.

"The Liberals will be arousing fear about the devil that voters don't know," he said.

But University of Ottawa historian and political commentator Michael Behiels expects the real contest will occur in Ontario and British Columbia, with a total of 142 Commons seats between them.

He said the outcome rests on how many seats shift in those two provinces and whether voters "want to get rid of a government rather than electing one."

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