“I Love Canada: It's so clean!” Visiting Americans may be about to lose their favorite cliche about their chilly neighbor. Over the past few weeks, a judicial inquiry in Montreal has heard charges that Canada's governing Liberal Party was running a system of extortion, embezzlement, kickbacks and graft as dirty as anything Americans might expect to find in your run-of-the-mill banana republic.
Just last week, for example, Canadians learned that one of the closest friends of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien was paid more than $5 million for work that was never done and on the authority of invoices that were forged or faked. It is charged that this same friend then arranged for up to $1 million to be kicked back in campaign contributions to Mr. Chretien's Liberal party.
Corruption charges have dogged the Chretien Liberals for years. Mr. Chretien left office in 2003 under suspicion that he had pressured a government-owned bank to lend money to businesses in which he held an interest. But until recently, nobody was able to prove anything worse than carelessness and waste. Now, though, the improper flood of money from the public treasury is being connected to a reciprocal flow of money to the Liberal Party and favored insiders, including Mr. Chretien's brother.
And because Mr. Chretien's successor, Paul Martin, failed to win a parliamentary majority in last year's federal election, Mr. Chretien's old survival strategy of denial and delay no longer works. Together, the opposition Conservative and Bloc Quebecois parties could force an election call at any time. Opinion polls suggest that if an election were held now, the Liberals would lose decisively.
The discrediting and defeat of Canada's Liberal government would constitute a grand event in Canadian history: after all, the Liberals have ruled Canada almost without challenge for the past 12 years and for almost 80 of the past 109 years. But the kickback scandal could reverberate outside Canada's borders too.
Many Americans see Canada as a kind of utopian alternative to the United States: a North American democracy with socialized medicine, same-sex marriage, empty prisons, strict gun laws and no troops in Iraq.
What they don't see is how precarious political support for this alternative utopia has become among Canadian voters in recent years. From World War II until the 1980's, Liberal power rested on two political facts: its dominance in French-speaking Quebec and its popularity in the immigrant communities of urban Ontario.
Over the past two decades, however, the Liberals' Quebec-plus-the-cities strategy has worked less and less well.
As French-speaking Quebecers have become more self-confidently nationalistic, they have turned their backs on the intensifying centralism and paternalism of the Liberals. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau rewrote the Canadian Constitution in the early 80's over the objections of the Quebec government of the day. In none of the six federal elections since have the Liberals won even half of Quebec's seats in Parliament.
Luckily for the Liberals, the Conservative Party split into warring factions in 1993. Consequently, the Liberals were able to return to power that year even though they won only 37 percent of the vote.
Almost everything that Jean Chretien did as prime minister over the next decade can be understood as an effort to reverse his party's long-term problems. He edged to the right on economic issues in the hope of appealing to middle-income voters alienated by Mr. Trudeau's economic mismanagement. He veered leftward on social issues in the hope of finding a new constituency among wealthier Ontarians and Quebecers. After 9/11, he struck anti-American and anti-Israel attitudes that he hoped would resonate in isolationist Quebec and among certain immigrant communities.
And it was presumably for these same reasons that Mr. Chretien set in motion his kickback scheme. As Liberal strength in Quebec has decayed, the Liberals have found it more and more difficult to hold together an effective political organization in the province. How do you sustain a political party without principles or vision? Sometimes you do it with graft.
So in 1995 a multimillion-dollar emergency national unity fund was established. The fund was justified as a way to win Quebecers away from separatism by sponsoring sporting events and cultural projects across the province. The fund failed in its ostensible purpose. But what the scheme did do was create a huge unmonitored slush fund from which key political figures in the province could be rewarded. A large portion of those rewards, the judicial inquiry in Montreal is being told, were then kicked back as campaign contributions to the Liberal Party and as payments to Liberal insiders.
Some Liberals defend the scheme as a noble plan gone wrong, an attempt to beat back separatism that was unfortunately corrupted by a few bad apples. But when so many apples go bad, you have to suspect that the barrel is rotten.
Unlike their supposed analogues, the Democrats in the United States or Great Britain's Labor Party, Canada's Liberals are not a party built around certain policies and principles. They are instead what political scientists call a brokerage party, similar to the old Italian Christian Democrats or India's Congress Party: a political entity without fixed principles or policies that exploits the power of the central state to bribe or bully incompatible constituencies to join together to share the spoils of government.
As countries modernize, they tend to leave brokerage parties behind. Very belatedly, that moment of maturity may now be arriving in Canada. Americans may lose their illusions about my native country; Canadians will gain true multiparty democracy and accountability in government. It's an exchange that is long past due.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.