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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE

That's politics, eh?

January 21, 2006

OH, CANADA. JUST WHEN WE start to forget you exist, you come up with some fascinating diversion -- Celine Dion, say, or maybe a radical shift in political direction. The latter is what observers expect to happen after Monday's parliamentary election. After 12 years in power, the Liberal Party stands to be swept out by the Conservatives, led by a man many have called the Canadian twin of George W. Bush. For a country that legalized gay marriage and has a government-run healthcare system surpassing the wildest dreams of Hillary Clinton, that's quite a switch.

The problem here is that it's not clear Canadian voters want a change in political direction so much as a change of political parties. The Liberals have been beset by scandals that led to a no-confidence vote in November. The controversy focuses on kickbacks to party members from a government-sponsored ad campaign promoting national unity in secession-minded Quebec; the whole affair is a textbook demonstration of the arrogance and feelings of entitlement that nearly always infect a party after it has enjoyed unchallenged power for too long. (Look northward, Republicans.)

For all that, the Liberals under Prime Minister Paul Martin are overseeing a booming economy. The Canadian dollar is soaring; the government has enjoyed budget surpluses for eight years in a row; and unemployment is at its lowest level in 30 years. That's hardly a recipe for voter outrage, yet the scandal has so thoroughly disillusioned the country that recent polls put the Conservatives ahead by anywhere from 8 to 13 percentage points over the Liberals.

Conservative Party leader -- and likely the next prime minister -- Stephen Harper will doubtless support a closer relationship with the United States than Martin does, though you wouldn't know it to listen to his campaign speeches. Bush and his policies are so loathed in Canada that it's political suicide for a candidate to be connected too closely with the U.S. president. Indeed, the Liberals pulled off a come-from-behind victory in 2004 by tarring Harper as a U.S. lapdog, and Martin recently pulled out a series of attack ads implying that Harper is a tool of the United States and that his election would "bring a smile to George W. Bush's face."

It probably won't work a second time around. Still, there's a good chance the Conservatives will not win enough seats to control Parliament outright and will have to form a minority government -- and minority governments in Canada or any other parliamentary democracy don't tend to last too long. But it may be just long enough for Canada's Liberals to come to terms with their own party's failings and toss out the bad apples.

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