The Bean Counter

A bundle of contradictions

Paul Martin shifts identities as quickly as many people change their clothes

December 13 1993
The Bean Counter

A bundle of contradictions

Paul Martin shifts identities as quickly as many people change their clothes

December 13 1993

A bundle of contradictions

Paul Martin shifts identities as quickly as many people change their clothes

Finally, after years of effort, the man charged with repairing and restructuring Canada’s economy before the next millennium has mastered the use of the microwave in his kitchen. That recent technological achievement “may well be the most significant accomplishment Paul has ever managed,” says Sheila Martin of her 55-year-old husband, Paul Martin, Canada’s finance minister. No such luck, however, when it comes to computers. “I’m not comfortable using them,” he says of the device that has revolutionized life in the late 20th century. But soon, if all goes well, Martin may succeed in figuring out the alarm clock in their Montreal home. “I just can’t get the hang of the damn thing,” he cheerfully acknowledged in an interview last week. But, added Sheila, in more menacing fashion: “Paul will have to figure that clock out soon: his life may depend on it.”

Businessman, politician, self-made millionaire, technosaurus, yesterday’s man and tomorrow’s planner: Paul Martin shifts identities and interests as quickly as many people change clothes. Describe him as easily bored, and he nods agreement. Call him a dilettante, and the flush in his face heralds the first rush of his famous explosive temper. “I like hearing about different ideas, and I like debating them with the people who have them,” he says. More to the point, Martin—despite his stable family life and comfortable sense of self—is a walking, talking bundle of contradictions. “Ask Paul to make a speech to 50 people, and he gets so nervous he practically falls apart,” says his executive assistant and long-time family confidante, Terri O’Leary. “But ask him to prepare a multibillion federal budget affecting millions of lives, and he is completely cool and comfortable.”

In fact, Martin, despite his bland public image and sometimes flaccid speaking style, is unafraid of decisive actions. The most visible evidence of that is the manner in which he made his fortune. Although Martin’s father, Paul Sr., was one of Canada’s best-known figures—serving in the federal cabinet under prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau—he was not wealthy. Paul Jr., who grew up in Windsor, Ont., went to the University of Ottawa and studied law at the University of Toronto before going to work for Paul Desmarais’s Power Corp. in Montreal. In 1981, Martin was vice-president of Canada Steamship Lines, a subsidiary of Power, when Desmarais decided to sell CSL. Martin, despite the fact that interest rates were at an all-time high of 22.5 per cent, borrowed $180 million to buy the company. On the day he signed for the loan, a prominent New York financial expert forecast that interest rates would rise as high as 30 per cent. “I gambled everything that interest rates had reached their peak,” said Martin. “If they had continued to rise, I was cooked.” Rates fell, the company prospered, and two years ago, a Quebec business maga-

zine estimated Martin’s personal fortune at $30 million.

Despite that success, Martin remains an exceedingly modest character with few enemies in the House of Commons. Disdainful of partisan politics, he counts Brian Mulroney and Jean Charest among

his friends, and frequently dines with members of the New Democratic Party caucus. In preparing last week’s economic statement, he phoned former Conservative finance ministers Michael Wilson and Don Mazankowski to exchange views. After finishing second to Jean Chrétien in the 1990 Liberal leadership race, Martin quickly fell into line behind him—and privately urged his supporters not to undermine Chrétien when, shortly after becoming leader, he made a series of gaffes. Now, says one of Chrétien’s advisers, the Prime Minister “will give Paul all the authority he wants because he

knows he can trust him completely to be loyal.” Martin’s many friends delight in telling affectionately disdainful stories about him. Michael Robinson, an Ottawa lobbyist who managed his 1990 leadership campaign, says that “Paul really loves getting into conversation on substantive matters and to debate them in the most gruesome detail.” Adds Robinson: “You visit him at his farm in the Eastern Townships and his idea of relaxation is lying on the trampoline with a cell phone, making calls.” He is notorious for having no sense of direction, and for his absentmindedness. During his leadership campaign, his aides often “lost” him: he would wander out for a walk to reflect on is-

sues and forget that he had meetings. Martin’s approach to things cultural is a curious mix between high-brow and plebeian. His taste in movies—a favorite pastime—is strictly lunch-bucket. “He loves blood-and-guts stuff and hates anything sentimental,” says Sheila.

“He almost ran screaming from the room at the idea of Howards End [the 1992 movie about two families in Edwardian England].” Martin agrees. “I hate movies about ‘relationships,’ ” he says with heavy emphasis. “My idea of heartwarming dialogue is Clint Eastwood saying ‘Make my day.’ ” Interestingly, Martin’s three all-time favorite movies deal with the theme of outsiders rebelling against the system: they are Breaker Morant, an Australian drama about a military court martial; Gallipoli, dealing with an Allied military catastrophe in the First World War; and the cowboy

classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Similarly, his favorite books are the Flashman series—nine fanciful historical novels that chronicle the exploits of a character whose only redeeming quality is his ability to survive in dangerous circumstances. That, however, is a metaphor Martin refuses to apply to his current situation. At the same time, his taste in music has not budged far beyond the 17th and 18th century. Told recently that his 24-year-old son, Jamie, an aspiring rock musician, had purchased tickets to see Elton John, Martin sniffed and responded: “I wouldn’t go listen to him for free if he was playing in my garage.”

Behind the fond ribbing from friends about his peccadilloes, however, is a deep appreciation of Martin’s more substantive qualities. His curiosity is the stuff of legend: once, in the 1970s, after the Hell’s Angels motorcycle group had taken control of a town in Quebec during a dispute with police, Martin drove into town “just to see what the atmosphere was like.” A latecomer in his awareness of women’s issues,

he has become a fierce advocate. Two summers ago, Liberal MP Mary Clancy was assaulted in the parking lot on Parliament Hill. Shortly after, to test Martin’s sensitivity to safety issues, she asked him if he knew whether there were lights on the lot. Martin did not know the answer— but subsequently, said one friend, became “obsessed” with the issue of women’s safety and spent months quizzing every woman he met about the problem.

Ultimately, Martin draws most of his strength from his family—both past and present. His closeness with his wife is immediately obvious: even as they engage in their near-endless verbal jousting, Martin, seated next to her on a couch, keeps his arm around her and regularly strokes her hair. The couple have been

married for 28 years and have three sons: watching a football game with them on Sunday afternoons has become a family ritual. If Sheila has her way, Martin’s stay in federal politics will not be much more than one more term: she says bluntly that she looks forward to the day when he leaves office. But Martin’s commitment to public service comes from his father, with whom he says he was “extraordinarily close.” The two spoke every day until Paul Sr.’s death last year. Of his mother’s death last month, at the age of 80, Martin says: “If anything, it is even harder the second time. I am not sure I have come to grips with it yet.” Martin is comfortable with his memories of the past. It will be harder for him to make Canadians feel the same about the uncertain shape of the future.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa