RAY SUAREZ: A whiff of an old scandal and Canada's 22 million potential voters will be heading to the polls -- in the midst of that country's bitter winter -- to choose a new government, or maybe to reelect the minority government they have had for the last two years.
Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal Party government lost a vote of confidence in the Canadian parliament last night. Martin's principal opposition will be the conservatives led by Stephen Harper. But Harper's conservatives are just one of three opposition parties, including the separatists in Quebec.
To help us sort through our Canada's politics, we are joined from Ottawa by Jim Travers, a national affairs columnist for the Toronto Star.
And, Jim, let me start by asking whether this is unusual in Canadian politics, just over a year-and-a-half or so and a government on its way out.
JIM TRAVERS: It's actually almost dead on the national average for a minority government. They usually last seventeen or eighteen months in this country. So that part of it is not particularly unusual. What is unusual is this is the first winter campaign in 25 years in Canada. And that has the country really buzzing about the difficulties of what you might call a dog-sled election.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, it is pretty cold in much of the country on Jan. 23. In whose interest is it to hold a national ballot then?
JIM TRAVERS: We're really having an election here due to the combination of scandal and opportunity. The scandal you mentioned earlier. A month ago a judicial inquiry found that the ruling Liberal Party had diverted more than $1 million from a federal advertising campaign into its own pocket to pay its bills.
The opposition parties want to take advantage of that report and the tainting of the Liberal Party as well as they would like to stop two weeks of wild spending here, $20 billion in promises from the Liberal Party. So they're trying to seize this opportunity. They think it's their best chance rather than waiting until the spring.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the government has always been a minority government -- Paul Martin's government. The scandal has been known about for a while. And the recent inquest cleared the prime minister personally so why bring down the government now?
JIM TRAVERS: Well, I think they do believe -- the opposition parties do believe that Martin's government will only strengthen between now and spring. They want to -- they really want to attack them now, not only on the scandal issues but on what is really called here a culture of entitlement, insider lobbying, and a general sense that after 12 years of liberal rule, it really is time for a change in Canada so they want to grab that opportunity.
I don't think the campaign in the end will be mostly fought about corruption. It will be fought about the future of the country. But they have seized what they believe is their best opportunity.
And, as you say, I mean, it is somewhat baffling because all the normal indicators at the polls, the economy is strong, and traditionally minority governments defeated in this way come back either with another minority or a majority so, in fact, you'd think the odds favored the liberals but the opposition parties have ganged up, if you will, to bring this government down.
And so we're into a very unusual, interesting campaign. And no one, interestingly, is predicting a really clear outcome. The campaign will win this election.
RAY SUAREZ: Given the political lay of the land as it exists at the end of November 2005, does it look like a similar or the same parliament is going to emerge after a January ballot?
JIM TRAVERS: Yes. The really interesting factor here in our Canadian situation is that we have a separatist party in Quebec. And Quebec sends 75 representatives to our 308-seat parliament. So the difficulty is quite clear when you do your mathematics that it's very tough to form a majority government as long as the separatist Bloc Quebecois is a powerful in Quebec. It now looks like they will do as well as they did in the last election and perhaps a little bit better, so it's going to be very, very tough for any party to form a majority government so Canadians could be looking forward to a quite long future of minorities and relatively unstable parliaments.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, in many other countries that are similarly situated what you often get is alliances between parties that form majority governments. Why has that not happened in Canada?
JIM TRAVERS: It hasn't really been in any party's interest to do that, but I think the next parliament may well see that. The NDP, which is our third national party which plays a kind of spoiler role much of the way Ralph Nader did in your presidential election, will likely join forces with the liberals if they are to form another minority government to really establish a little more positive long-lived government. And that would be in the NDP's interest because they're in a sort of slow-building campaign where they would like to convince Canadians that voting for the NDP is really a vote for stability, not for a third party.
RAY SUAREZ: The NDP, that's the New Democrats?
JIM TRAVERS: The New Democratic Party, which is much like Britain's Labor Party -- similar in that a left-of-center, Social Democratic Party.
RAY SUAREZ: So they've got the ruling liberals have the conservatives on one side, the New Democrats on the other and the Bloc Quebecois is kind of a wild card?
JIM TRAVERS: Yes, it is. It's an outlier in Canadian politics because its entire purpose in politics is essentially to break up Canada and Quebec and create Quebec as an independent nation, obviously with close ties to Canada.
But its purpose -- it is somewhat of an oddity for outsiders to see a party in parliament, particularly one that is quite strong whose only purpose is the destruction of the country. It's one of the really peculiar things about Canadian politics.
RAY SUAREZ: The previous Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien, had famously sour relations with the current Bush administration in the United States. Had the United States and Canadian governments been closer under Paul Martin and is there a lot of Canadian-American business that's just going to go on a back burner until Canada sorts its government out?
JIM TRAVERS: Paul Martin came to power promising better relations than Jean Chrétien had with the United States. But that's gone sour lately, mostly over the dispute over soft wood lumber, which is a rather arcane free trade dispute but is of course very important to Canada which is a resource-producing nation and a trading nation.
So that has really become a major political issue in Canada -- from the perspective of the United States, one of the interesting things about this election is that the Liberals are really -- who are very comparable to your Democrats, have taken positions on Iraq, on trade and on social issues which are very similar to U.S. Democrats, while the Conservative Party, which have a lot of similarity to U.S. Republicans are much, much closer to U.S. mainstream or Republican views, the administration's views at least, on free trade, on defense and on social issues.
For example, Mr. Stephen Harper the leader of the Conservative Party, would have supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was in favor of the missile shield, and those issues which the Liberal Party have taken the opposite view on. Which by the way the Liberal Party views are generally popular in central Canada in particular, that is Ontario and Quebec.
So there is a real division along issues that are important to the U.S. in this election.
RAY SUAREZ: Jim Travers, thanks for joining us.
JIM TRAVERS: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.