The 39th Canadian general election was held on January 23, 2006. The Conservative Party of Canada won the most seats, though its total was less than the combined total of the three other parties and it therefore formed a minority government.

"But libertas," you say. "Didn't Canada just have a federal election less than two years ago?" Yes. Yes we did. The 2004 Canadian Federal Election was held on June 28, 2004, and the Liberal Party of Canada eked out a narrow minority victory.

But governments -- especially minority governments -- can fall, and that's exactly what happened here.

A brief recap before we continue...

The Liberal minority government of Paul Martin lasted for just over a year. While the three opposition parties had initially pledged tepid support for the government, things turned sour soon enough. The Liberals' fortunes were not aided by the ongoing Gomery Inquiry, which had been called to determine the causes of and incidents pertaining to the "sponsorship scandal." Liberal-friendly advertising firms had allegedly received government funding and grants for doing very little, if anything. Liberal popularity dropped, and after three consecutive majority governments under Jean Chrétien, the party could only form a minority government.

The merge between the country's two conservative parties (the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance) had also eliminated vote-splitting on the right. The party had made a breakthrough in Ontario and were on the verge of another breakthrough in Québec.

The 38th Parliament was among the most dramatic and exciting in the nation's history. All eyes were on the opposition parties whenever a confidence vote loomed; failure for a confidence vote would spell the government's dissolution and another election. The Liberals' first budget, which the separatist Bloc and the social democratic NDP decried and vowed to oppose, was supported by the Conservatives. There was much talk of "making this parliament work for Canadians." All the while, the Gomery Inquiry continued.

There was, of course, a publication ban on testimony from the inquiry. This became particularly strange during the testimony of Jean Brault, an executive at one of the companies that had been implicated in the scandal. While the testimony itself could not be reported, news outlets had a field day with images and soundless video of Brault breaking down during his testimony.

When the Liberals tried to divert the public's attention away from the scandal by promising heaps of new social spending, the Conservatives became irate. They promised to "put this government out of its misery at the earliest possible opportunity." Then they were handed an opportunity.

As Martin took to the airwaves to address the nation -- something usually only done in a period of extreme distress, such as wartime or right before the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum -- the opposition leaders were given equal time to respond. Harper and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe condemned the Liberals for their alleged corruption. NDP leader Jack Layton, however, threw Martin a life preserver. He said that the NDP would prop up the fragile minority government if Martin removed planned corporate tax cuts from the already announced budget and diverted that money into social spending.

And so the Liberals did.

Outraged, the Tories and Bloc vowed to vote against the budget. If both parties and at least one of the three independent MPs voted against the budget (Carolyn Parrish had indicated at the time that she was expelled from the Liberal caucus that she would vote with the party on all measures except for ballistic missile defence), the government would fall and an election would be called. All signs pointed to a summer election. The two other independent MPs were Chuck Cadman, a former Canadian Alliance MP who had won as an independent after losing the Tory nomination, and David Kilgour, a former Liberal who quit the party in disgust.

Then Belinda happened.

Belinda Stronach, once a leadership candidate for the Conservative Party, announced that she would be crossing the floor to the Liberals on May 17, 2005 -- two days before the budget vote was planned. She was appointed Minister of Human Resources Development, and gave the Liberals another vote in support of their budget. This meant that the opposition parties needed both Cadman and Kilgour to vote against the Liberal/NDP budget. Kilgour announced that this was his plan. Cadman kept his vote under wraps until he stood to vote in the House of Commons.

The vote was a squeaker, and in the end Cadman voted with the Liberals. He said it was out of respect for his constituents, who told him that they weren't ready for an election. This led to a tie, meaning that House Speaker Peter Milliken, a Liberal MP, was left to cast the deciding vote. As is tradition, he voted with the government. Martin's minority survived -- by the skin of its teeth. Many Conservatives expressed disappointment and relief simultaneously, particularly deputy leader Peter MacKay, who had been dating Stronach until her defection two days earlier.

The minority lumbered on, though the spirit of co-operation was all but dead. As more revelations regarding the sponsorship scandal came to light and Judge John Gomery issued his final report (which condemned three consecutive Liberal governments for, among other things, a "culture of entitlement"), the Conservatives, Bloc and NDP all began to gear up for an election.

The deal that sealed the minority government's fate came not in the form of a standard confidence matter (any bill that deals with money, such as a budget), but in a straightforward censure motion: "That the House has lost confidence in this government." It was symbollically introduced by Harper and seconded by Layton. There was no question about the result this time, as all three opposition parties voted in favour.

Chuck Cadman, the most-watched man in that spring's budget vote, was not among the MPs who stood up to be counted on November 28, 2005. He had died of cancer just months after saving the Martin government.

Wasn't this writeup supposed to be about an election?

Yes, I was just getting to that. Paul Martin visited Governor General Michaelle Jean on November 29, 2005, asking her to formally call a general election for January 23, 2006. This meant that the campaign would go straight through the holiday season, a fact Martin and the Liberals hoped would backfire on the opposition parties.

But it was the Liberals' communications strategy that hit a wall early on. While the Conservatives and even the New Democrats focused on their own policy to an extent, the Liberals lashed out at everyone and everything that they could. They blamed the opposition parties for the election, the Conservatives for being scary, the New Democrats for being spendthrifts and the Bloc Quebecois for being separatists. Anyone who didn't vote Liberal was somehow "un-Canadian."

So what does this have to do with beer and popcorn? Lots. Liberal spokesman Scott Reid (not to be confused with Conservative MP Scott Reid) was debating childcare issues on national television when he called the Conservative plan (a $1,200 annual tax credit per child under the age of six) "$25 a week to spend on beer and popcorn." Oops. The Conservatives struck back immediately, painting the remark as proof of how the Liberals saw parents, and holding a press conference at which prominent Conservative shadow cabinet critic Rona Ambrose was flanked by parents, young kids, expectant mothers and, well, beer and popcorn.

It was essentially downhill from there for the Liberals. The "natural governing party" that had been so adept at getting itself positive media coverage found photos of its leader and finance minister on a horse-drawn wagon whose wheels were literally falling off strewn on newspaper front pages across the country. Oops.

The Conservative campaign was largely considered "positive;" the party released one policy plank every day and steered clear of attacking its opponents too much. Similarly, the NDP campaign focused more on the Liberals than on the Conservatives, and even indicated that it was willing to work with a Conservative government if it came down to it.

The "beer and popcorn" incident isn't the only controversy that dogged the Liberals throughout the campaign. The RCMP was called in to investigate finance minister Ralph Goodale's office on charges of insider trading relating to income trusts. While Martin forcefully stood by Goodale, many analysts said this controversy may have cost the party the election.

In the end, the Conservatives won 124 seats, while the Liberals managed 103. The NDP won 29, the Bloc won 51 and one Quebec independent, radio host André Arthur, was elected. The Tories knocked the last Liberal standing, deputy prime minister Anne McLellan, out of power in Alberta, sweeping the province. The Liberal sweep of Prince Edward Island was not much of a consolation for the party; the province is home to only four seats. Some of Martin's cabinet ministers, such as Liza Frulla and Pierre Pettigrew, were defeated. Others, including Belinda Stronach (whom the Conservatives exerted much energy to try to defeat) were re-elected handily.

Likewise, "star" candidates did not necessarily fare as well as they were expected. Former TV news anchor Peter Kent, who ran for the Conservatives, was unsuccessful in knocking off Liberal cabinet minister Carolyn Bennett. Fellow Tory Alan Cutler, the former civil servant who had blown the proverbial whistle on the sponsorship scandal (and lost his job in the process) couldn't beat David McGuinty, the brother of the Liberal Ontario premier. And Liberal Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space, didn't have quite enough star power to knock off his riding's Bloc incumbent.

Paul Martin announced in his concession speech that while he would ride out his term as an MP, he would not lead the party into the next election. All-but-official leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff had won his seat in the Toronto area that night. Martin was gracious, offering Harper his congratulations and assistance during the transition period. He told supporters about a young girl he'd met at a campaign stop who had, being nervous at meeting him, accidentally called him Paul, only to quickly correct herself and address him as "Prime Minister." "She can call me Paul again," he said to applause.

The Bloc's result in Quebec, the only province in which it runs candidates, was actually seen as somewhat of a disappointment. The Liberals had managed to hang onto a few ridings, and the Conservatives had made som unexpected breakthroughs. The party's goal was to sweep the province, which was reflected in its campaign slogan (and astonishingly catchy theme song), "Heureusement, ici c'est le Bloc!" Duceppe tried to appear upbeat in his election speech, but his personal disappointment was clear.

Layton's speech was not much of a concession; the NDP was well aware that it could not possibly form a government, and it did manage to gain a number of seats around the country. He declared it a victory for ordinary Canadians and said he was determined to work with the new government.

Harper had the biggest reason to declare victory, and he did so in front of thousands of cheering supporters at his Calgary headquarters. He acknowledged and thanked his family, the party and every region of the country. Most interesting was his declaration that "the West is in now!," a direct reference to the Reform Party's first-ever campaign slogan. The party had eventually become the Canadian Alliance, of which Harper was the leader at one point, before it merged with the Progressive Conservative Party to become the party's current incarnation.

Paul Martin resigned as Prime Minister of Canada and offered the collective resignation of his cabinet on the morning of February 6, 2006. Hours later, Stephen Harper and his cabinet appointees arrived at Rideau Hall to be sworn in as Canada's 39th government.


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