The elections in Canada a week ago gave the Conservatives control of the government for the first time in 13 years. The party, which has its base in the country’s less densely populated western (prairie) provinces, succeeded in unseating the ruling Liberals, who had been bedeviled by corruption scandals over the Christmas holidays. The incoming Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has promised tax decreases and improved relations with Washington.
While the Liberals charged during the campaign that Harper was a radical free marketer who was bent on dismantling Canada’s expensive social safety net and transforming Canada into a puppet of U.S. foreign policy, none of this is likely to happen. To be sure, relations with the US that have soured over the war on terror (and in particular, over the war in Iraq) are likely to improve. Cooperation on border security is an obvious area in which change will occur. Canada will likely spend more on defense, and there may be some cooperation on missile defense as well. But Canada will not contribute to the U.S.-led effort in Iraq; and there is not likely to be any headway made on sticky trade issues with the U.S. Harper promised to lower taxes, without endangering the social entitlements programs; but he will not be able to do much to push the conservative social agenda supported by his base in the western prairie states.
The Conservatives are simply too politically weak to do much more. The party only won a plurality of seats. Hence, it will either rule as a minority government (which means its life expectancy is not very good) or it will have to find coalition partners with whom it will be forced to compromise. The Conservative Party’s task will be made all the more difficult owing to the fact that it is a union of two parties (the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance), a union that is hardly tension free. The Conservatives’ major challenge will be to rule well without creating any un-necessary storms. The Liberals will be blowing hard to create just that.