Mel Brooks once offered these succinct definitions of tragedy and comedy: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole.”
By that definition, Canadian politics these days might seem very comical indeed. But I am counting on Americans to be less callous than the mordant Brooks–and to recognize that the events now occurring in Canada are serious, even sinister. There is though one warning I’d better immediately deliver to readers: Along with at least four other public commentators, I have recently been served with libel papers by a leading figure in this story. Because National Review is distributed in Canada, and therefore can potentially be reached by Canada’s more restrictive libel law, I have to be a little circumspect in what I say here.
Two years ago, Canada’s auditor-general discovered that the Liberal government in power since 1993 engaged in a massive scheme of diversion of taxpayer funds in the province of Quebec. Last year, an independent inquiry headed by Judge John Gomery began to investigate the diversion. At least $250 million (Canadian) and perhaps as much as $350 million passed through the particular government program at the center of the scandal. Some of that money ended up in the pockets of influential Liberals, allegedly including the brother of former prime minister Jean Chretien. Some was kicked back to the Liberal party and its campaign workers. The Gomery inquiry has also revealed a disturbing nexus–that’s a word to which no lawyer can object–between senior figures in the Liberal party and organized crime.
Nor is this the end of the Liberal scandals. Other and even larger government programs have also failed to account adequately for the money entrusted to them. It has been alleged that Chretien pressured a government-owned bank to lend money to rescue a failing business in which he held an interest. Finally, some insiders have alleged that the current prime minister, Paul Martin, has been connected with other important abuses of power for the benefit of private individuals–and it is these allegations that have led to the recent flurry of libel actions from the prime minister’s office.
Paul Martin has always benefited immensely from his reputation as the Mr. Clean of the Liberal party. Unlike Chretien, a rough-talking populist, Martin was born to privilege. His father just missed the prime ministership in the 1960s. Young Paul was plucked by one of Canada’s wealthiest men, Paul Desmarais, to run Canada Steamship Lines–and ended up owning most of the company. Martin entered politics in 1988; he lost the Liberal leadership to Chretien in 1990, but became finance minister, eliminating Canada’s chronic budget deficits by restraining federal spending and imposing harsh tax increases on Canada’s middle class. At the end of twelve years of Chretien/Martin government, the after-tax, after-inflation income of the average family stood exactly where it had when the government took office: a dismal record unparalleled since the Depression. In 1990, the average Canadian worker took home about 90 cents for every dollar taken home by the average American. Today the average Canadian takes home about 75 cents.
And yet in 2003, when Martin at last succeeded in becoming prime minister, it was widely believed that a new era of competence and integrity had arrived. As if to demonstrate his confidence in his innocence, Martin established the Gomery inquiry–and immediately called an election. Some cynics have suggested that Martin was racing against the clock, hoping to win a majority before any of Gomery’s findings became public. If so, the plan nearly succeeded. Martin convinced many Canadians to differentiate between his new Liberals and the tainted group around Chretien. He won enough seats to form a seemingly stable government.
Then Judge Gomery took his hearings onto cable TV. Night after night, Canadians heard firsthand stories of tens of thousands of dollars in cash left in envelopes on restaurant tables, of alleged Mafia figures giving orders to party chairmen, of kickbacks, bribes, and fraud. The opposition Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois announced that they would vote together to defeat the Martin government and force a summer election. And now the great tragicomedy began. Martin needed 154 votes to defeat the non-confidence motion. He had 132. He needed 22 more. Where could he get them?
First he did a deal with Canada’s socialist New Democrats (NDP), allowing them to rewrite his spring budget, canceling $3.4 billion in tax cuts and adding $4.6 billion in extra spending in exchange for their 19 votes. That left him three short. There were three independent MPs in the House. One would surely vote with the government, one just as surely against. Two short. That third independent MP had a grievance against Conservative leader Stephen Harper; count him probably pro-government. That left Martin one short. What to do?
The first thing he had to do was trample on Canada’s constitutional traditions. The parliamentary calendar normally provides for “opposition days,” when the opposition party can bring forward motions. Knowing that Harper would move non-confidence in the government–and that the government lacked the votes to prevail–Martin canceled all the opposition days scheduled for May and June. At the same time, Martin halted all government business, because any government motion before the House could be voted down.
So far, Martin was playing rough–but still playing legal. Then, on May 10, the opposition parties found a loose bit of business on the calendar and amended it to demand that the government resign. They won that vote 153-150–but Martin declared that he regarded the vote as purely procedural and therefore non-binding. Next the opposition parties began defeating government motions to adjourn. In a Westminster-style parliament, the power to control adjournment is essential to control of the House. For that reason, adjournment motions have traditionally been regarded as confidence motions. Between May 11 and May 15, the Liberals lost three of them. But Martin pressed on. More time, he insisted, was essential: He would call an election after Gomery reported–in December, or possibly in January or March 2006–but certainly not now, no matter how many votes he lost.
And then Canadians learned the reason why: Over the period that the Martin government had been losing vote after vote in the House, it had been secretly negotiating with the disappointed loser of the Conservative party’s 2004 leadership contest, Belinda Stronach, the billionaire heiress to an auto-parts and land-development fortune. Stronach, a glamorous twice-divorced thirty-something and onetime close friend of Bill Clinton, had been carrying on a very public affair with a handsome fellow-member of the Conservative caucus, Peter MacKay. On the evening of Monday, May 16, Stronach had dinner at the prime minister’s house in Ottawa and accepted an appointment to his cabinet. Later that night, she telephoned MacKay and broke the news to him that she was deserting both him and the party.
The following day, Stronach gave a stirring statement about the convictions that had obliged her to turn her coat. Those who had followed her rather dizzy personal style were impressed to learn of the existence of these convictions, which proved to track neatly the editorial policies of Canada’s major news media. Some skeptics attributed Stronach’s change of heart to four other causes: a) a growing realization that she was unlikely ever to be chosen as Conservative leader; b) the allurements of an immediate cabinet office; c) some discreetly whispered hints that a woman like herself was exactly the right kind of person to help “renew” the Liberal party after Martin went to his well-earned retirement; and d) her anger and surprise at being dressed down by Harper for criticizing him to the national media.
Whatever the motive, she switched–and Martin’s government won a fifth and presumably final vote in the House. Soon afterward, the Liberals won a by-election in Labrador to fill a vacancy and expanded their margin in the House by another vote. With two Conservatives seriously ill and unable to spend much time in Ottawa, the Martin government could again count on a little breathing room, at least so long as the NDP stayed bought. True, the day after the Stronach maneuver another Conservative MP came forward with an audiotape in which somebody who sounded very much like the prime minister’s chief of staff seemed to offer the MP something that sounded very like a personal benefit–a consulship or perhaps a seat in Canada’s appointed senate–in exchange for his vote. If such an offer had been made, it would arguably constitute an illegal bribe.
And yet the voters seem to have shrugged the whole matter off. Since the Stronach episode, the Martin government has risen in the polls, especially in the all-important province of Ontario. NR’s Mark Steyn has bitterly quipped that Paul Martin could be captured on DVD spending $20 million of taxpayer money on cocaine and rent boys–and the polls for Ontario would still say Liberals 37, Conservatives 34. How to explain this seemingly bizarre attachment of Central Canada to a government that has raised their taxes, reduced their standard of living, and been detected in scandal after scandal? There is no short answer, but the following five together probably contain most of the truth.
First, as Peter Brimelow argued in his 1986 book The Patriot Game, the Westminster system of government has never sat well on Canada’s vast territory. The English cut off the head of Charles I for attempting to govern without Parliament, but English-speaking Canadians increasingly see Canada’s activist Supreme Court, not Parliament, as the guardian of cherished freedoms. And as political scientist Ted Morton observes, the Liberals are the Court party.
Second, most of those involved in the scandals have been Quebec politicians. It has been easy for English-speaking Canadians to shrug off the scandals as no concern of theirs.
Third, because the Bloc Quebecois joined with the Conservatives to vote against Martin, the Liberals have been able to condemn any opposition to their power as tainted by separatism. Never mind that it is the Liberals’ own corruption that has revived Quebec separatism after a long period of dormancy: Like Mexico’s PRI, the Liberals preen as the party of nationhood no matter how much damage they do to the nation.
Fourth, there is no getting around the fact that the newly reunited Conservative party has not yet connected either emotionally or substantively with the Ontario majority. Canada is a less religious country than the U.S., less economically individualist, and much more isolationist. That political landscape poses special challenges for a center-right party that wants to open Canada’s economy, reduce taxes, restore relations with the U.S., and emphasize democratic self-government rather than judicial power.
Fifth, and most paradoxically, the harm the Liberals have done to the Canadian economy has profited them politically. The 1990s were a harsh decade for many Canadian families. Only in the past couple of years have they enjoyed any kind of sustained improvement in their after-tax living standards. Bruised by this experience, Canadians have come to see any change as overwhelmingly likely to be change for the worse.
And yet, the final assessment cannot be all pessimism. The true character of Martin and his government has been exposed. The long-fractious Conservatives have been united by anger at the Stronach defection. The Liberal-NDP governing coalition is unstable. Any hope that the Liberals might once have entertained of stifling the Gomery inquiry is gone for good. Martin is committed to accepting an election no later than next spring. If this is comedy, we’ll see who laughs last.