Aside from the occasional uproar over Quebec separatism, Canadian politics are seldom terribly exciting. But on this Canada Day, the annual start-of-summer holiday marking the country's birth, Canadians from all parties concede their politics are in a rut.
Political leaders are viewed as uninspiring, pressing problems are being swept under the rug, and political dialogue has turned even more petty and partisan than usual. The faith Canadians once had in government institutions has eroded. And although Prime Minister Jean Chretien remains a popular figure with voters, even his allies acknowledge his government has run out of steam.
"Canada is drifting right now," said Michael Bliss, a professor of Canadian history at the University of Toronto. "It's more unsure of itself than it has been a long time. Politically speaking, it's quite depressing, really."
Don Cayo, an editorial writer for the Halifax Daily News, jokes that Canada's predicament is now the mirror image of that in the United States. While President Clinton has a virtually unlimited number of ideas but no power to push them through, Cayo explains, Chretien has virtually unlimited power but nothing he really wants to do with it.
Indeed the only topic that seems to arouse any sustained interest in political circles these days is guessing when Chretien will retire.
To a large degree, this drift reflects the breakdown of the remarkable political consensus that governed Canadian politics since World War II. The elements were pretty straightforward: support for the fight against communism, a generous social safety net, maintaining cultural and economic independence from the United States and accommodating the special needs of French-speaking Quebec. With minor exceptions, this left-of-center consensus was embraced by both national parties, the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives, or Tories.
But Robert Bothwell, another University of Toronto historian, says that over the last decade this consensus has unraveled. The Cold War ended, and globalization has posed a serious challenge to Canada's ability to hold back the tide of U.S. influence. Generous social programs have become economically unsustainable. And the rise of Quebec separatism has deeply split Canada's English-speaking majority between those who would recognize the province's special status and those who refuse.
The result is that Canadian politics has splintered along regional lines. A shrunken Liberal Party clings to a five-seat majority in Parliament, where two-thirds of its members come from a single province, Ontario. Quebec, which used to divide its loyalties strategically between the two national parties, now sends a delegation to Parliament almost entirely made up of supporters of the separatist Bloc Quebecois. And the once-proud Tories have been reduced to a shadow of their former stature following the wholesale defection of Prairie populists to the new Reform Party.
Over the past year, Reform leader Preston Manning has tried to stitch the right-of-center Tories and Reformers under the banner of a United Alternative. But the idea won support from only 20 percent of registered members of his party in June. And Tory leader Joe Clark, a former prime minister who emerged this year from 10 years of retirement to take back control of the party, has steadfastly refused to consider any joint venture with Reform.
This three-way split among the opposition has allowed the Liberals to remain in power largely by default. And it has only reinforced caution and complacency in a prime minister whose natural instincts, analysts say, are to tinker at the margins of policy rather than embark on bold and politically risky initiatives.
"The government of the day is highly pragmatic, anti-visionary, one-problem-at-a-time," said Jeffrey Simpson, political columnist for the Globe & Mail, one of Canada's two national newspapers. "And with a hopelessly divided opposition, there is no incentive to go beyond that."
Some problems, however, are getting harder to ignore.
When executives of Canada's struggling high-tech sector went to Ottawa last month to complain that they are losing key employees to the United States, Chretien responded by simply declaring that there was no "brain drain," dismissing it as a ploy by conservatives to push their tax-cutting agenda.
There's been a similar response to the growing income-and-productivity gap between Canada and the United States. Finance Minister Paul Martin alternately denies there is a productivity problem or claims it's already being fixed.
The whole relationship between Canada and the United States has become something of a muddle. This spring, Canada was on the verge of a full-blown trade war with the United States over the hot-button issue of American magazines entering the Canadian advertising market with special Canadian editions. Then last week, the country worked itself into a tizzy following news reports that the government was privately toying with the idea of currency and customs union with the United States. The idea was quickly dropped.
Meanwhile, strikes by nurses in almost every province -- including one underway in Quebec -- serve as reminders that the government has yet to take up the long-term funding problems of the national health and pension plans that experts say will be swamped by an aging population and advances in medical science.
Although the Angus Reid polling firm's latest survey shows the Liberals are now 30 percentage points ahead of any other party, Reid vice president Darrell Bricker says the support is soft, reflecting the weakness of the opposition and its leaders more than any genuine enthusiasm for Chretien and his team.
More broadly, Bricker says voters appear to have grown tired of their political leaders. Chretien, 65, and Clark, 60, both have been on the political scene in Ottawa for more than 30 years, while Manning has taken up the populist mantle from his father, who dominated Alberta politics from the mid-1940s until 1968.
"If there were a conservative candidate with some charisma and ideas, the Liberals would be very vulnerable," said Bricker. "All the ingredients are there for a major political bonfire. All it needs is the right guy to come along and light the match."