TORONTO — Canada's three opposition parties on Monday night voted in the House of Commons to bring down the Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, contending that the governing party is corrupt.
The 171-133 no-confidence vote had been expected for the last month, since the release of a report by a federal inquiry looking into accusations that the Liberal Party in the late 1990s laundered money and committed fraudulent campaign finance practices in Quebec Province to counter separatist forces. The report said the party had benefited from a kickback scheme.
"In this campaign we will hear nothing but pessimism" from the opposition, Martin said after the vote in a speech that did not mention his party's scandal. "We will fight for a Canada in which no one is left behind."
New parliamentary elections will pit Martin against Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party leader, for the second time in less than two years. Neither candidate is particularly charismatic, and neither has captured the public imagination.
"Canadians are counting on you to give them a clean, honest government," Harper told his party caucus after the vote. "We need an accountable government."
Martin was exonerated of any blame in the scandal by the inquiry, but the opposition hopes to make past misdeeds by the Liberals the major issue of the campaign anyway. The Liberals hope to emphasize their economic accomplishments of bringing down unemployment, cutting taxes and expanding federal budget surpluses.
Since the broad outlines of the corruption scandal were known during the national campaign last year, culminating in a narrow Liberal victory and a wobbly government, many political columnists and academics anticipated a similar result when voters go to the polls in January.
The campaign has already assumed a strident tone, which is likely to drive down turnout by an electorate that prefers its politics tidy and polite.
During a debate last week in the House of Commons, Harper claimed that the Liberals had been "found to have been involved in a massive corruption ring using organized crime to defraud taxpayers."
In response, the Liberals sent Harper a letter from a lawyer warning that the party would bring suit if, outside the House of Commons, he repeated his accusation that there is a link between the Liberals and organized crime. Within the House of Commons, he has parliamentary immunity.
Harper refused to retract his statement. Continuing the attack on Monday, the Conservatives called on the Ontario Securities Commission to investigate whether a spike in stock market trading on the Toronto exchange, just before recent government announcements on tax breaks for income trusts, had been caused by government leaks to insiders.
Martin in recent weeks has been ratcheting up his comments in opposing American tariffs on Canadian softwood imports, in an apparent effort to win votes in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, provinces that are expected to be political battlegrounds.
In the last few days, the government has announced more than $20 billion in aid for the lumber industry, as well as social programs to benefit native populations, students, immigrants, disabled people, the military, the arts, crime prevention and mass transit. The government also announced cuts of about $30 billion in personal and corporate taxes over several years, as well as cuts in taxes on dividends.
Whether the Liberals or the Conservatives win, neither party is expected to gain a majority in the House of Commons, making another election in the next year or two a distinct possibility. That would mean that the separatist Bloc Quebecois and social democratic New Democratic Party will continue to be power brokers in the next Parliament.
The Bloc, which only operates in Quebec, hopes electoral gains will add momentum to their hopes for holding a third referendum for independence.
"Santa Claus will be wearing Liberal red this season with all of the goodies and likelihood that the Liberals are poised to come back in power," said David Taras, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, referring to the governing party's official color. "But it's not impossible for Harper to win. There is a mood for change and that is what Harper has going for him."