Canada's PM faces tough election challenge

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin is surrounded by cheering supporters Sunday in Ottawa as he arrives at his first rally of the federal election campaign. Jonathan Hayward / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, who took office when his predecessor retired, called general elections for June 28 in a bid to win his own mandate. But he could face a tough test with support for his Liberal Party hit by a patronage scandal.

Polls suggest that rising support for Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper could stick Canada with a minority government. Under that scenario, the Liberals would get the most seats in Parliament, but would need other party support to pass legislation.

The Conservatives have attacked the Liberals’ fiscal policies, courting voters with promises of tax cuts and a smaller role for central government. The Liberals pledge to increase spending on health care but keep a balanced budget.

In his first speech on the campaign trail Sunday, Martin told Canadians in Ottawa the election would turn on whether to retain Canada’s social safety net. He said Harper’s plan to reduce taxes below levels in the United States would have grave consequences.

Hitting the campaign trail
“You cannot have a health care system like Canada’s, you can’t have social programs like Canada’s, with taxation levels like those of the United States,” he said.

With more than a year left in the term he inherited from retired Prime Minister Jean Chretien, there was no need for Martin to call elections just now. However a victory could give his administration much-needed credibility as he struggles to distance himself from the patronage scandal he inherited from Chrétien.

Martin, the finance minister who eliminated the federal deficit in the mid-1990s, had been expected to romp to victory after taking over from Chretien in December.

But the Liberals have been badly damaged by the subsequent disclosure that in the late 1990s advertising firms with party ties received $72 million in government funds for little or no work.

The Liberals now appear on the verge of losing their parliamentary majority after 11 years in power.

Unpopular Liberal governments in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec have also cost Chretien support. The three provinces contain some 70 percent of the country’s 31 million people.

Other major election themes include improving defense spending, helping city infrastructure and scrutinizing the financial credibility of the government in wake of a staggering $700 million cost overrun on implementing a national gun registry.

Military spending to the fore
The Canadian military was crippled by spending cuts during the 1990s, when, as the finance minister, Martin cut costs to balance the budget.

Canada has now had balanced budgets for seven years in a row, longer than any other G-8 country, but it faces pressures at home and abroad to restore funding for foreign troop deployments, such as in Afghanistan and Haiti, to step up border security and to join the U.S. missile defense program.

There also are cross-border issues with the United States that will contribute to the election debate: a ban on Canadian beef in the United States due to cases of mad cow disease, a longstanding dispute over softwood lumber sales and, to a lesser extent, marijuana laws and gay marriage.

Martin has worked to improve relations with the United States after Chretien refused to send troops to Iraq and one of his aides called President Bush a “moron.” Martin had positive meetings with Bush in Mexico in January and in Washington in April.

Martin also faces sagging support in the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec, where the separatist Bloc Quebecois Party has nearly twice the support of the Liberals, according to an Ipsos-Reid poll.

A warning to separatist supporters
The prime minister said a vote for the Bloc would isolate the province and help “lead Quebec out of Canada.”

Bloc leader Gilles Ducceppe campaigned on Sunday in Montreal, calling for the removal of “obstacles and intrusion from Ottawa” in Quebec affairs.

The major parties have shied away from the issue of legalizing gay marriage because polls show Canadians are almost equally divided on the issue.

Currently in Canada’s 301-seat Parliament, the Liberals have 168 seats, the Conservatives 73, the Bloc Quebecois 33 and the leftist New Democratic Party 14. There are nine independents and four vacant seats.