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The following editorial was published in June 2004, just before the federal election of that year.

Commentators have wrongly characterized the 2004 general election as dirty, derogatory and demeaning. In fact, it has been one of the most illuminating of recent times.

The campaign has reaped a bumper crop of choice for voters. Those Quebeckers steeped in parochialism can opt for their now-permanent party of protest, the Bloc Québécois. Romantics can throw their lot in with dreamy Jack Layton's New Democrats or, for a change of pace, the blissful future promised by the Greens.

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Then there are the two entities with a chance of forming a government: the reformed Conservatives under Stephen Harper and the perennial default choice of Canadian politics, the Liberals, now with Paul Martin at the helm.

For 11 years, the Liberals have governed Canada, and, by and large, they've governed it well. Simply ask yourself a variant of Ronald Reagan's famous question: Are you and your country better off today than you were a decade ago? The answer must be a resounding yes.

A previous generation of governments, Liberal and Tory both, had so abysmally managed our economy that Canada was keeping company with the likes of Belgium and Italy when the Chrétien Liberals came to power in 1993. Today, the Canadian economy is the envy of the industrialized world, providing the foundation for social investment. Did this turnaround occur on the backs of the provinces and other recipients of federal funds? Obviously. Was it justified by the circumstances? Just as obvious.

Nor was finally wrestling the deficit to the ground Mr. Martin's only achievement. Working with the provinces, he also put the Canada Pension Plan on a sound footing. And then, just five years after his shock fiscal therapy, he authored the largest tax cut in Canadian history.

Yet, in other important ways, Mr. Martin and the government he served came up decidedly short. They repeatedly failed to produce a serious effort at health-care reform, preferring to purchase temporary provincial peace rather than tackle the real problems plaguing the system. They lacked the will to confront the running sore of aboriginal policies that never seem to lift aboriginal peoples out of misery. Nor could the party of Lester Pearson muster the intellectual power to put in place a modern foreign policy.

Finally, like most governments long in the tooth, the Liberals grew sloppy, even cavalier, with power and money. And so we were introduced to the concept of friendly dictators, democratic deficits and, ultimately, the sponsorship scandal. The Liberals took ownership of the crisis of public ethics that had propelled them to power in the first place.

That said, the point of the current electoral exercise is not so much to judge the kind of government the Liberals have provided as it is to evaluate the kind they would provide with another mandate.

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To put it succinctly, Paul Martin, or whoever is inhabiting his body, has proved a monumental disappointment since becoming Prime Minister six months ago. His pronouncements have displayed all the consistency of Pablum. Intent on winning every vote in the country, he lived in fear of offending someone, somewhere, somehow. On Iraq and Kyoto, he was incomprehensible. On same-sex marriage, he swung both ways. On missile defence co-operation, first he was openly for it, then secretly for it. He had two Supreme Court openings, but boxed himself into a process corner.

He made enemies of the meritorious (witness Stéphane Dion) and promoted the mediocre (come on down, Jean Lapierre). The only difference between his political manipulations and those of his "friendly dictator" predecessor was that the latter didn't leave bloodied fingerprints at the crime scene.

On health care, we have heard much rhetoric. But Mr. Martin's ideas for shortening waiting lists remain fanciful. As a general rule, he has beseeched voters to count on his reputation for solutions rather than proposing any.

But does he deserve to be thrown out?

The country's justified but disproportionate anger over the sponsorship scandal is insufficient cause by itself to impose capital punishment on Mr. Martin's Liberals. The McGuinty budget in Ontario is infuriating but not germane.

The answer to the question of who can best govern Canada requires a close examination not just of the devil you know but of the alternative. Which brings us to Mr. Harper and the Conservatives.

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The greatest argument in their favour is the time-for-change imperative. All institutions require periodic cleansing to remove sclerotic thinking and allow for renewal. On issues such as health care, Mr. Harper is better positioned to bring new approaches to old problems.

Over the past year, the young Conservative Leader has proved more adept than generally presumed at building bridges, as demonstrated by his role in merging the Alliance and Tories, and finally creating a viable alternative for Canadians. But merged entities take time to gel. And the Conservatives have not had ample time. As we have seen throughout the campaign, the new party speaks with many contradictory voices, a cacophony of confusion that needs to be sorted out.

What of Stephen Harper himself, the man who would be prime minister? We may know Paul Martin all too well, but we hardly know his challenger at all. Some of what we know demands greater explanation, most notably the sentiments contained in the infamous Alberta firewall letter. It was incumbent upon Mr. Harper to provide a greater comfort level rather than respond to challengers with quiet contempt or truculence.

Mr. Harper is an exceedingly intelligent man. But his position on same-sex marriage, for instance, is either dumb or, more probably, disingenuous. However one feels about specific issues, the courts play a legitimate role in Canadian society. After all, it was politicians, not judges, who conceived, wrote and adopted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Mr. Harper's assertion that the judiciary would respect a free vote of the House of Commons, presumably a vote to restrict marriage to a man and a woman, flies in the face of this assigned role. Indeed, Mr. Harper was not such a stout defender of parliamentary supremacy when elected officials voted to restrict third-party advertising during election campaigns. In that instance, he rightly sought Charter relief from Parliament's oppression of free-speech rights.

So what are his principles here? And why won't he tell us whether he would use the notwithstanding clause, a legitimate constitutional tool, on same-sex marriage?

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One is left to conclude that the Conservative Leader prefers the 1867 version of our Constitution, with its explicit division of powers between the provinces and Ottawa, to the 1982 version granting rights to individuals and groups and conferring power upon courts to adjudicate these.

For Mr. Harper, checks and balances would come in a different form. He intends to gradually move to an elected Senate without the inconvenience of constitutional negotiation. And, as a proponent of smaller central government, he favours devolving power to the provinces.

It is at this juncture that the right-of-centre Mr. Harper finds common cause with the left-of-centre Bloc Québécois. We worry that Mr. Harper would both weaken the capacity of Ottawa to govern in the name of Canada and that his party's possible alignment with the Bloc in a minority Parliament would give succour to the separatist movement.

Finally, and oddly, Mr. Harper, a graduate of the fiscally dry Reform Party, has put forward a platform that sails too close to the deficit wind for our comfort. A high quality of life can be built only on the foundation of a strong economy, and a strong economy requires governments to provide a stable fiscal environment. The Conservative platform is inadequately prudent in this regard.

And so we find ourselves in the same conundrum as millions of voters. On the one hand, the Liberals are worn and tired and their leader has not lived up to his billing. But he's performed well in previous incarnations.

On the other hand, Stephen Harper, a product of Central Canadian caution and Alberta's can-do frontier mentality, represents genuine change. Yet there are troubling signs that he has not yet matured into a truly national leader.

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As with medicine, the most important principle of Canadian politics should be to do no harm. That means don't risk our fiscal health and don't gamble with our national unity.

We wish Mr. Martin had afforded himself the opportunity of an 18-month tryout before going to the polls. Now the voters have the opportunity to impose a probationary period themselves. Whichever party prevails Monday, a minority looks the most likely outcome. We believe Mr. Martin represents the less risky proposition and deserves a second chance to prove himself. We further believe the Conservatives could use more time to pull their new party together and make their positions and predispositions clearer.

Therefore, we urge a Liberal vote Monday -- not because they've earned the right to re-election but because, at the very least, we can count on them to do little harm and, at best, the near-death experience might help the old Paul Martin find himself and lead Canada more confidently into the future.

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