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Canadian Elections

06/24/04 12:00AM By Barrie Dunsmore
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(Host) Canadian national elections are only days away, and commentator Barrie Dunsmore reflects on what the outcome may mean for Canadian politics.


(Dunsmore) We have a tendency in this country to see a Canadian election as a referendum on how Canadians are currently feeling about their intimidating and sometimes intrusive southern neighbor. But while there is no question that how Canadians feel about America is a factor in many aspects of Canadian life, including how they vote, it certainly is not the only factor.

By large majorities, Canadians tell pollsters they strongly oppose the US invasion of Iraq; they feel that Canada has been on the losing end of the North American Free Trade Agreement; and they do not like President George W. Bush. Yet, in the final days before next Monday's election, the polls show the newly formed Conservative Party of Canada in the lead. That party supports the war in Iraq, wants to expand the Free Trade agreement, and shares much of the Bush social agenda. So what's going on here? Well, what we are seeing in Canada these days is a perfect example of the famous truism of former Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill- All politics is local.

However much most Canadians may oppose the war in Iraq and dislike George W. Bush, they are apparently more unhappy with the Liberal Party of Canada, which has been in power for more than a decade. The current Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, who succeeded Jean Chretien last fall, has watched his party's once formidable electoral advantage, virtually disappear. There's been a big scandal, in which hundreds of millions of dollars in government money was, in a sense, kicked back to some of its key supporters. Martin wasn't directly involved but his party has certainly been hurt. Then there is the problem of being in power for more than ten years. Inevitably, people develop grievances and want a change.

But the most important factor in the Liberal's decline has been the re-emergence of a serious, national opponent. For most of Canada's history, the Progressive Conservatives were one of the country's two major parties. But following ten years in power, mainly under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the party was nearly wiped out in national elections and only in Ontario did it retain any support at all. Meanwhile Western Canada produced a radical-conservative movement that developed strong regional support but under different party names and leaders still couldn't sell its social agenda nationally.

Then last December, under the skillful leadership of Stephen Harper, a 45 yr. old political sophisticate, the two conservative factions joined forces to become the Conservative Party of Canada. Traditionally, eastern economic conservatives were mainly social liberals. But now, with the prospect of regaining national power, they appear ready to hold their noses and accept not just Harper's pro-American foreign policy, but also his Bush-like stance on health care, gun control, gay rights and abortion. The election will be close, but if they win, the new Canadian Conservatives will take Canada further to the right on the political spectrum than it has ever been.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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