CANADA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Health care primary focus in Canadian election
, June 19, 2004
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has called an election for June 28, even though current opinion polls show his Liberal Government will likely lose its majority in Canada's lower house.
Martin took over as Prime Minister from the long-serving Jean Chretien, but now the Liberal Party is involved in a patronage scandal.
Canada is not a member of the Iraq Coalition, and opposed the US's prosecution of the Iraq war. Most of the issues in the hard-fought election are domestic issues.
In Canada, the Federal Government rules at the national level, while the provinces are responsible for health and education. It was intended when the Dominion of Canada was formed that the provinces would be relatively weak, with the US Civil War held as an example of what would happen if the States became too strong.Powerful provinces
However, in one of the quirks of politics, the provinces became more and more powerful - even more so than many European governments now that the European Union has assumed some local powers.
One of the main battlegrounds in the Canadian poll will be health care. Canada doesn't have a private health system - the Medicare scheme covers all Canadians, with the main focus being equality and equal access.
An important inquiry into the Canadian health system, the Romanow Commission, took as its basic premise that the health system should be guided by equity, namely equal access to care on a needs basis. Roy Romanow was a former Premier of the prairie province of Saskatchewan for the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), which while relatively weak at the Federal level, has formed some important provincial administrations.
Canada is facing an ageing population, sharing many of the themes common in advanced countries around the world.
The great fear that the Liberal and NDP have played on is the "two-tier health system." The Conservatives, who have taken a battering over the past several elections, are often accused of introducing a privatised health system by stealth.
Paul Martin is viewed with some suspicion by the left, as he is a no-nonsense economic manager, who has balanced Canada's budget after years of chronic deficits. Canada is the only member of the Group of Eight - the club of the world's richest industrialised nations - to have a balanced budget, something of a point of pride for Canadians.
Some new initiatives, for example, home-based care, are likely to be important debating points in the upcoming poll.
The Chretien regime entered into a new pact with the provinces, the Health Care Renewal Accord. Under this pact, the Federal Government undertook to transfer C$34.8 billion to the provinces over the next five years to attack existing problems, a fund for primary care and more money for expensive equipment such as MRIs, access to which has been a problem.
Canada's problems are similar to those of other nations, such as Taiwan and Australia that have publicly-funded health care systems - the waiting lists never seem to get much shorter, no matter how much is spent.
The Canadians understand that their health system needs money. While taxes on the individual are relatively high, corporate taxes are lower than the United States - something that serves to attract and hold businesses in Canada.
The Canadian system works because the public is prepared to pay for it.
Canadians take pride in the cultural diversity of their nation. Rather than a melting pot, Canada is more like a mosaic. This has been influenced by the fact that French-speaking Quebec is a distinct society.
In many elections, what happens in Quebec determines the outcome of the election. Ontario, the biggest and most economically successful province with Toronto as its heart, has voted strongly for the Liberals, and the vote in Quebec is usually split between the Bloc Quebecois, the separatist party, and the Liberals.
The current provincial Government in Quebec is a Liberal administration, which is unpopular for tackling Quebec's bloated public sector.
The Liberals will struggle to gain a majority in Parliament and are likely to form a minority government. The Liberals need to get 40 per cent of the vote to have a majority in the 301-member Parliament, and have been dropping in the polls. The NDP has around 18 per cent of the vote, and they are the party most likely to support the Liberals.
As for the Conservatives, they are split between a libertarian wing and a conservative wing and have had problems presenting a credible opposition to the Liberals.