Canada Purges the Tories, And Ushers In a New Era
LIKE the American election last fall, Canada's election Oct. 25 boiled down to one overriding force: the desire for change. And here, change means a landslide.
Canadian voters overturned the status quo by virtually wiping out the Progressive Conservative Party that has held power for nine years. Instead, they sent to Ottawa two protest parties and a large Liberal Party majority.
Jean Chretien, the Liberal Party leader who was a Cabinet minister under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and was tagged ``yesterday's man'' by his political rivals, is now Canada's man of the future - the nation's 20th prime minister.
His mandate is to bolster the economy, create new jobs, reduce the deficit, and institute a more responsive, and caring government. The two protest parties also stand ready to blow the whistle should the Liberals fall down on those points.
Frustrated by persistent high unemployment and a Conservative government long deemed high-handed and out-of-touch under former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Canadians elected 177 Liberals to the 295-member House of Commons in Ottawa, compared with two Conservatives and nine from the New Democratic Party. The separatist Bloc Qucois becomes the official opposition with 54 seats, and the fiscally conservative Reform Party, popular in the west, holds 52 seats.
``The time has come to work together to put the nation back together,'' Mr. Chretien said in his victory speech in his Shawinigan, Quebec, district. ``I've always been a proud francophone, a proud Quebecer, and a proud Canadian.''
Whether Chretien can extend the initial grace period with the electorate depends, political scientists say, on how quickly he follows through on his campaign promises to:
* Swiftly implement a $4.5 billion (Canadian; US$3.4 billion) jobs plan that focuses on rebuilding infrastructure and stimulating small-business growth.
* Refrain from cutting more than modestly Canadians' prized social safety net, which includes universal health care, unemployment insurance, and welfare benefits.
* Reduce the deficit significantly.
* Renegotiate parts of the North America Free Trade Agreement. A call to President Clinton is expected soon.
* Resolve a bitter conflict over logging old-growth forest in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia, by creating a park, a plan that could cost millions.
* Quickly cancel a multibillion-dollar contract for sea-patrol helicopters, seen as a waste of taxpayer money, and a contract to lease Toronto's Pearson airport to politically connected groups.
* Act to prevent foreign overfishing off the coast of Newfoundland. Chretien has said Canada should unilaterally extend its jurisdiction to include fishing grounds just beyond 200 miles.
``Chretien's main problem will be to deliver on the expectations the country now has,'' says Jon Pammett, chairman of the political science department at Ottawa's Carleton University. ``Expectations are very high and he needs to take quick steps'' to meet them.
But Chretien will have a few other things to think about as well. Though he has a big majority, Canadians were not just handing over a blank check.
``Whenever the Liberals propose to spend money - and we have a feeling they will spend - we will be the fiscal watch dog,'' Reform Party leader Preston Manning assured his supporters.
REFORM'S strength is thought by analysts to be in part a backlash to early polls showing a massive vote building for the Quebec separatists (BQ). ``There is zero sympathy for Quebec aspirations here in the west,'' says David Bercuson, a history professor at the University of Calgary. ``They're angry at Quebecers for voting for the Bloc.''
Bloc leader Lucien Bouchard maintains that he will be a responsible player in the federal government. He says the Bloc is there to open a dialogue on separation, but that any determination to leave the federation will be made at the provincial level in two separate votes.
Some analysts, however, are unconvinced that the BQ's huge victory in Quebec will translate into anything like a sure thing for the provincial, separatist Parti Qucois next year. But what appears certain is that the BQ will make it difficult for Chretien to claim he is speaking for Quebec - making the country that much more difficult to govern.
The Progressive Conservative Party, which has either been in power or the official opposition party in every election since Canada was confederated in 1867, lost its status as an official party. Many analysts question its viability. Prime Minister Kim Campbell, who took over for Mr. Mulroney in June, lost her seat.
The depth of the rejection was clear. In the heart of Toronto, even long-time supporters had given up on the party.
``I'm supposed to be a member of the Conservative Party, but I didn't pay my dues last year,'' said Tom Bruder, a voter walking glumly away from the polls in Toronto's bellwether St. Paul's voting district.
Mr. Bruder, who voted Liberal, says he did so as a protest. ``The other parties may not handle the economy too well either,'' he said. ``But it's time for a change.''