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1.13.2006
  Canada Throwing Out The Liberals
The minor course changes for Congress dictated by American voters pale before the electoral tsunamis that occasionally sweep across the "Great White North." Here, a governing party can find itself reduced overnight to a tiny minority in Parliament.

Beset by scandals and infected with what an investigating judge called a "culture of entitlement," the long ruling Liberal Party is tumbling in the polls as Canada prepares for a national election Jan. 23.

The predicted result, victory for the opposition Conservative Party, would bring joy to the White House and Fox News.

It also would make jaws drop amid those who've surveyed Canadians' hostility to the Bush administration and their passionate opposition to the Iraq war. Just last week, the U.S. Junior Hockey Team was booed here as it took the ice to play Canada.

"We have moved to the left as a society, yet we seem ready to elect a right-wing government," said Ian Waddell, a Parliamentary candidate of the leftish New Democratic Party, sometimes a broker between Canada's two major parties.

Canada? A country that pioneered government-run health care? That legalized same-sex marriage? That opened North America's first safe injection center for addicts in Vancouver -- over Bush administration protests? That sees even Conservative candidates favoring decriminalization of marijuana?

"But a lot of people are appalled at the Liberals over the scandals," said Bill Good of CKNW Radio, host of the province's top-rated talk show.

Or, in the words of Shirley Woo, a Vancouver voter whose member of Parliament is a senior Liberal Cabinet minister, "Enough is enough is enough."

The Liberals, in power since 1993, are an urban party that backs gun control. The government of then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien brought in national gun registration in the late 1990s. Registering guns was supposed to cost less than $50 million. The program's cost has exceeded $2 billion. It employs 1,700 people and has diverted hundreds of Mounties from other duties.

In 1995, after Quebec voters almost approved an independence referendum, Chretien launched what became known as the "Sponsorship Program."

The Canadian government was going to spend up to $100 million to enhance its image in the French-speaking province by lending its name to all manner of cultural and sporting events.

Instead, millions of dollars disappeared into the pockets of Liberal-connected ad agencies.

Chretien was eventually forced to retire. His successor, Prime Minister Paul Martin, was left to clean up the mess. A public inquiry exposed middlemen and backstage fixers populating a party in power for most of the past 75 years.

It has been, for Canadians, like Watergate -- or the Jack Abramoff scandal, only with more dire consequences.

The scandal, and its sleazy cast, boosted the cause it was designed to stop -- Quebec separatism. The Bloc Quebecois, a pro-sovereignty party, is expected to sweep more than 50 of the province's 75 seats in the 308-member House of Commons.

One key question remains to shape the election's outcome. As talk show host Good put it Thursday, "A lot of people just don't trust the (Conservatives) when the party has so many social conservatives in its ranks."

Conservative leader Stephen Harper is a serious young man from Alberta. He is a product of the Reform Party, a right-wing movement that rose in western Canada in the 1990s -- eventually absorbing the long-established Progressive Conservative Party.

Harper has a long record of controversial statements. He once upbraided Atlantic Canada for backwardness. He entertained an audience of U.S. conservatives with a derisive description of Canada's generous unemployment insurance laws. He has even called the country second-rate.

The Liberals are blitzing the airwaves with Harper's past statements -- and depicting themselves as the lone party capable of standing up to the United States.

Harper is pledging a "free vote" (meaning no dictate from party leaders) in Parliament on same-sex marriage. If it loses, he pledges to respect marriages that already have taken place.

But, reversing course from 2004, Harper promises not to send Canadian soldiers to fight in Iraq.

Harper is an awfully conservative guy to be heading up a country used to its social safety net and social tolerance.

"Oh, we'll still recognize the country the day after he becomes prime minister," joked pollster Michael Adams.
 
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