We are nearing the end of an unremarkable and disappointing election campaign, marked by petty scandals, policy convergences and a dearth of serious debate. Canadians deserved better. We were not presented with an opportunity to vote for something bigger and bolder, nor has there been an honest recognition of the most critical issues that lie ahead: a volatile economy, ballooning public debts and the unwieldy future of our health-care system.
The challenges facing our next federal government do not end there, of course. The next House of Commons must find new ways to protect Parliament, the heart of our democracy. It needs to reform its troubled equalization program without straining national unity. Relations with the U.S. are at a critical juncture. Any thickening of the border threatens to punish all Canadians, while negotiations over perimeter security have implications for national sovereignty and economic security. Wars in Libya and Afghanistan, climate change, Canada's role in the world, the rapid and exciting change of the country's ethnic and cultural makeup - the list is great, as is the need for strong leadership in Ottawa.
Whom should Canadians turn to?
The Liberal Party's Michael Ignatieff has been an honourable opposition leader; he has risen above the personal attacks launched by the Conservatives, he has stood up for Parliament, and he has fought hard in this election. But his campaign failed to show how the Conservative government has failed, and why he and the Liberals are a preferred alternative.
Jack Layton has energized the New Democrats and the electorate, and seems more able than the other leaders to connect with ordinary people. He has succeeded in putting a benign gloss on his party's free-spending policies, but those policies remain unrealistic and unaffordable, at a time when the country needs to better manage public spending, not inflate it. He has shown that a federalist party can make serious inroads in Quebec, but it has come at the cost of an unwelcome promise to impose provisions of Quebec's language law in federal workplaces.
Only Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party have shown the leadership, the bullheadedness (let's call it what it is) and the discipline this country needs. He has built the Conservatives into arguably the only truly national party, and during his five years in office has demonstrated strength of character, resolve and a desire to reform. Canadians take Mr. Harper's successful stewardship of the economy for granted, which is high praise. He has not been the scary character portrayed by the opposition; with some exceptions, his government has been moderate and pragmatic.
Mr. Harper could achieve a great deal more if he would relax his grip on Parliament, its independent officers and the flow of information, and instead bring his disciplined approach to bear on the great challenges at hand. That is the great strike against the Conservatives: a disrespect for Parliament, the abuse of prorogation, the repeated attempts (including during this campaign) to stanch debate and free expression. It is a disappointing failing in a leader who previously emerged from a populist movement that fought so valiantly for democratic reforms.
Those who disdain the Harper approach should consider his overall record, which is good. The Prime Minister and the Conservative Party have demonstrated principled judgment on the economic file. They are not doctrinaire; with the support of other parties they adopted stimulus spending after the financial crash of 2008, when it was right to do so. They have assiduously pursued a whole range of trade negotiations. They have facilitated the extension of the GST/HST to Ontario and British Columbia, and have persisted in their plan for a national securities regulator. The Conservatives have greater respect, too, for the free market, and for freedom of international investment, in spite of their apparent yielding to political pressure in the proposed takeover of Potash Corp.
Even more determination will be needed to confront the sustainability of publicly funded health care in an aging society. Health care is suffering from chronic spending disease. If left unchecked, it could swallow as much as 31 cents of each new dollar in wealth created in Canada in the next 20 years. In spite of some unwise commitments he has made on subsidy increases to the provinces, Mr. Harper has the toughness and reformist instincts to push the provinces toward greater experimentation (in private delivery, for instance) and change.
The campaign of 2011 - so vicious and often vapid - should not be remembered fondly. But that will soon be behind us. If the result is a confident new Parliament, it could help propel Canada into a fresh period of innovation, government reform and global ambition. Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are best positioned to guide Canada there.