If Canada were just another big US state (hardly), an election ousting a liberal party for a conservative one would be a political quake. But Monday's vote merely replaced one minority-led government with another. Such weak parliamentary rule can force healthy compromises. But can Canada afford weak and fragile leadership?
For a NATO ally, Canada's military has dwindled in strength far too much. Its cherished national health system is in need of an expensive overhaul. Despite Canada's attempt to project its own version of "soft power" diplomacy in counterpoint to that of the US, tenuous rule in Ottawa, built on awkward coalitions, forces leaders to be consumed with political survival.
Even the new prime minister, Stephen Harper, head of the Conservative party, has denounced Canada as a "Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term."
Mr. Harper, who hails from the western, oil-rich province of Alberta, had to tone down such right-of-center pronouncements during the eight-week campaign. Otherwise, his two-year-old party would not have won as many seats as it surprisingly did in the Liberal Party's eastern strongholds of Ontario and Quebec. Nonetheless, voters left him without a majority in Parliament, and little clarity on what party should guide Canada's future.
To be sure, political compromising has helped Canada deal with a deep divide between east and west, as well as the dulled appetite of French-speaking Quebec for separation. Debating those issues endlessly, along with Canada's hot-cold ties to its domineering neighbor to the south, is part of Canadian identity. Politicians who stake out the middle ground in the four-party Parliament do help keep Canada whole.
But does healthy compromise produce necessary statesmanship to solve Canada's deepest problems?
Take, for instance, one action by the outgoing prime minister, Paul Martin. Early in his short, two-year, minority government, he suggested Canada would join the US in deploying a North American missile defense system. Then, under pressure at home, he opted out. That uncertainty about Canada's long-term security isn't the stuff of leadership. The Liberal Party was also gung-ho about curbing carbon-dioxide emissions under the Kyoto Treaty. But efforts have faltered because of muddled consensus over how to bear the burden.
The Liberals' defeat, coming after 13 years in power, was in large part because of money scandals. And the crude US-bashing in their campaigns also seemed to backfire. But perhaps voters threw out Canada's longtime ruling party simply out of frustration at Canada's inability to tackle long-standing problems.
Harper's mellowed conservatism will be tested by a need to find allies to the left in Parliament. He could show leadership in one area: By not letting Canada's general distaste for Bush administration policies influence how he pursues Canada's interests in settling disputes with the US, such as the timber trade issue.
Harper's leadership was evident in his ability to help unite Canada's various conservative parties. Such skill is now needed to also fix its difficult national divides.