The following editorial was published in January, 2006, just before the federal election of that year.
Canada has been well served by 12-plus years of Liberal rule. Despite what the opposition parties would have us believe, it has not been all scandal and nest-feathering.
Ask yourself a simple multiple of Ronald Reagan's famous electoral question: Are you better off today than you were 12 years ago? Unemployment then stood at 11.2 per cent. Today, it is 6.5 per cent. An average mortgage rate was 8.78 per cent. Now it is 5.99 per cent, making home ownership affordable for hundreds of thousands more Canadians. The national debt has fallen from 66.5 per cent of gross domestic product to 38.7 per cent. Taxes are down; our standard of living is up.
On a more qualitative level, while much of the world has struggled with intolerance, Canada has emerged as a beacon of diversity -- home to newcomers from around the world and confident enough of managing differences to become one of the early adopters of same-sex marriage.
The Liberal years certainly have not been without their failings, from the gun registry to the sponsorship scandal to the fumbling of the income-trust issue. But there is no denying we are better off than when Jean Chrétien first came to power with Paul Martin at his side.
Nonetheless, we have concluded that the time has arrived for a change of government in Canada. Three reasons stand out above all.
1. While the past 12 years have been relatively good ones, the law of diminishing returns has been eroding Liberal effectiveness since at least the 2000 election. A change of leadership in 2003 has failed to reverse the process.
The government of Canada, long of tooth and short of energy, is mired in policy gridlock. Hard choices give way to easy spending, and long-term thinking is overwhelmed by short-term calculation. Lacking firm policy anchors, a heavily politi-cized Prime Minister's Office bobs from issue du jour to issue du jour, neglecting enduring challenges in favour of quick hits that hold out the promise of instant gratification. Thus, from nowhere, comes a proposal to outlaw the notwithstanding clause. Apologize, spend, line up behind the parade; it's hardly inspiring, even if a mean-spirited minority Parliament deserves some of the blame.
Moreover, Liberal verities hinder rather than assist the finding of answers to such challenges as increasing productivity, fixing an unwieldy and politicized immigration system, steadying relations with the United States and confronting the real ills of the health-care system. Too often, ministers have resorted to the politically correct course: waving a Kyoto agreement rather than tackling greenhouse-gas emissions, or throwing money at aboriginal problems. Fresh thinking is demanded, but the same old elected officials supported by the same old circle of advisers naturally come up with the same old solutions.
2. Then there is this matter of the culture of entitlement that has taken deep root within the Liberal Party. C. D. Howe may have been arrogant in invoking closure before debate even began on the pipeline bill in 1956, but at least he didn't hold up his chewing gum and announce he was entitled to his entitlements. Nor, to the best of our memory, did he take his driver on overseas business trips and defend the decision on the basis of his need for security advice. The Liberals have simply become too accustomed to power, and the elites in various sectors too accustomed to the Liberals. When even Ralph Goodale thinks it's all right to investigate yourself, you know you're in trouble.
Mr. Martin, a modest and honourable man personally, has done little to challenge this culture, despite so promising during the leadership race. His parliamentary reforms proved a damp squib. Electoral reform died on the vine. A new group of PMO apparatchiks picked up where the old ones left off, exercising an iron grip over party and government affairs. In conducting business with the government of Canada, the question of 'who do you know in the PMO?' remains regrettably relevant.
3. Change is essential in a democracy. A perpetual lease on 24 Sussex Drive fuels the sense of entitlement that blurs the line between private gain and public good. Just as bad, a perpetual lease on Stornoway discourages the discipline and moderation required of an alternative government. Without a vibrant, continuing competition for power, a democracy runs the risk of degenerating into hegemony on the governing side and unreality on the opposition side. Both parties need to believe they can win elections -- and lose them.
Unfortunately, Canadians have lacked such a choice for most of the past dozen years. The Conservatives, historically a weaker coalition than the Liberals, splintered, rendering themselves chronically uncompetitive. If Canadians were primed for change in 2000, that possibility was rendered moot both by the continued split on the right and by the inept leadership and bizarre views of Stockwell Day.
In 2004, Canadians were not ready to bet on a party just recently knit back together and a leader, Stephen Harper, with a controversial political past and a brittle and angry campaign presence. They preferred to give Paul Martin, the most successful finance minister in the history of the country, the benefit of the doubt, despite his ill-starred early months as prime minister.
Today, Canadians clearly are ready for change. If not now -- if not after a painfully incoherent minority Liberal government, if not after a succession of scandals, if not after four full terms of deteriorating government -- then when? When is change acceptable if not now?
The argument against change essentially amounts to this: better the devil you know than the new devil. After all, the devil you know has been mediocre, not disastrous, and lies closer to that ephemeral Canadian consensus sometimes called values. Many on the centre-left of the political spectrum remain not unreasonably suspicious of Mr. Harper's election-hour shift to the political centre. They continue to think the erstwhile neoconservative harbours a hidden agenda.
Then again, Mr. Martin himself has shifted all over the map in recent years -- on ballistic missile defence, on same-sex marriage, on the Clarity Act. In the run-up to the election in June of 2004, we wrote: "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."
Mr. Martin did not pass that 18-month probation. He doesn't deserve the public's opprobrium, or an electoral wipeout, but neither has he earned the right to a fifth Liberal term. A spell out of power would give the Liberals the time they so clearly need to renew themselves.
In that same 2004 editorial, we characterized Mr. Harper as "a product of Central Canadian caution and Alberta's can-do frontier mentality." But, noting his propensity to "respond to challengers withquiet contempt and truculence," we expressed doubt that he had "matured into a truly national leader."
There is greater reason to feel comfortable with Mr. Harper today. He has shown himself to be an intelligent man and one, in this campaign at least, who has learned to master his emotions. He has gained control of a party inclined to fly off in all directions, moved it to the centre and proposed a reasonable if imperfect governing platform. His targeted tax measures are measured, his defence policies are sound, and his approach to waiting times is worth experimenting with.
His pledge not to use the notwithstanding clause on same-sex marriage provides some comfort, as does his promise not to reopen the abortion debate. In both cases, he has demonstrated a deft political touch, giving something to his base but leaving himself ample political room to steer clear of unnecessarily divisive issues. (Private members have their rights, but we doubt they can muster a majority.) It is the same pattern with his gradualist approach to Senate reform and his willingness to engage the once-dreaded Red Tories.
The question many ask -- who is the real Stephen Harper? -- cannot be answered with exactitude. Then again, who was the real Pierre Trudeau -- the civil libertarian or the invoker of the War Measures Act? All politics contains a degree of posturing and calculation. That said, the evidence suggests Mr. Harper has indeed evolved as a national leader.
It is hard to endorse him and his party unreservedly. We worry about his seeming indifference to the need for a strong central government in a country so replete with runaway centrifugal forces. We worry about him teaming up with the Bloc Québécois to weaken the federal government's tax-raising capacity and its advocacy of national programs. We worry that he might have to strike retrograde compromises with social conservatives in the party's midst. We worry that he may prove heavy-handed in wielding the considerable powers of a prime minister.
But we also know that public opinion in an information-enriched society provides a natural check on immoderate policies and behaviour. Political parties are in the business of currying public favour; a governing party, even an unnatural one, will not stray too far, too frequently, from the social consensus. The dynamic of democratic change keeps competitors for power within reasonable bounds. So it will be for Mr. Harper and his Conservatives.