Columns

Paul Martin’s grand dream

Peter C. Newman November 19 2001
Columns

Paul Martin’s grand dream

Peter C. Newman November 19 2001

Paul Martin’s grand dream

Columns

Peter C. Newman

Finally, some good news. Last weeks rumour that Wall Street money moguls are so fed up with our plummeting dollar they won't do business with us anymore was a false alarm. They have decided to keep trading loonies.

Provided they’re filled with chocolate.

The problem is that our currency doesn’t buy much anymore, especially in the escalating arms race. Our contribution to George II’s Grand Coalition consists of five warships, six planes and a few hundred soldiers. But by the time that token force is converted into American dollars, it amounts to a few canoes, a scout troop and a pair of flying squirrels.

These are some of the silly stories making the rounds as Paul Martin prepares his much-awaited December budget.

It’s not an enviable task, particularly since he is undertaking this tricky assignment in his double capacity as minister of

finance and Prime Minister in Waiting. _

The document will thus reveal not only his determination to square the circle of keeping the federal budget balanced while financing the unexpected war on terrorism, but also clues to what he might do if he oudives Jean Chrétien and grabs the Liberal crown.

Paul Martin’s politics are deeply rooted in the mainstream of Canadian Liberalism. That means he subscribes to a toothless ideology, best described as sedate populism. You campaign from the Left, govern from the Right and hold on to the Mushy Middle, where most Canadian voters comfortably hang out.

What’s different about Martin, and the reason he is the most interesting among the current crop of pretenders to the Liberal crown, is that more than any other Canadian politician, he is plugged into the seismic upheavals shaping the global economy. As head of the G-20 ministers of finance meeting in Ottawa this week (and due to take over the equivalent G-7 group chairmanship after that), he is at the leading edge of efforts to salvage the world’s crippled economies from fiscal chaos. Interestingly, he views this as a short-term issue that’s only part of a much more dramatic realignment of global forces.

“Right now,” he told me during a recent interview, “we’re going through profound transformations, almost the recreation of nation-states in new directions. In that process, Canada must have an open and transparent economy because we depend so much on selling abroad. While I believe in a free market, somebody has got to watch it.”

Talking to Martin, especially when he is in full flight, de-

The finance minister has an imaginative vision that this country has lacked for the past decade or more

claiming his utopian schemes, I realized that his is the kind of imaginative vision this country has lacked for the past decade or more. “We must develop a much stronger conscience in terms of our responsibilities to others,” he insists. “It is nonsensical, for example, that there is not an international environmental organization of stature or a body that can deal with an epidemic like AIDS. What we’re doing now is just simply muddling along, getting ourselves battered from post to post, which may be fine if you’re as big and powerful as the United States. But for the rest of us, it’s not a good way to go.”

What Martin has in mind is nothing less than a Star Treklike reinvention of how the world works. “What I’d like to see is essentially to duplicate in terms of international governments what we do domestically,” he enthuses, suggesting such initiatives as a form of international equalization payments, international instead of domestic health-care initiatives, free education up until the end of high school, the formation of a global instead of a local banking system and so on.

At this point, although we were talking in a placid hotel room, Martin got up and started to orate, waving his arms for emphasis. He had the aura of a true believer who sees finance ministers as playing a pivotal role in the evolution towards a new society. “Were moving beyond the financial area and going into the social arena,” Martin says, “because finance ministers end up funding all of these programs anyway. I’ve talked to most of them from the G-20 about these issues and there are a number of us, I’d say the majority, who are now pretty well accepting that agenda as an international responsibility.”

If all this sounds idealistic and vague, that’s because it is. “I can get a lot more specific and I have been,” says Martin. “But the ultimate answer is not a neat little box. We are not talking about world government. We are talking about international environmental programs and other initiatives that can be realized without creating new cadres of international bureaucrats. Instead, it has to do with initiating common approaches. In the G-20, we will begin by establishing common standards in terms of banking regulation, then move to shared environmental regulations, followed by education. Of course, we have to recognize that the poorer countries won’t have the means to accomplish all this. Just as West Germany had a responsibility to put East Germany on its feet, that’s the kind of responsibility that we must take on as well.”

It may be crazy to dream of reforming a world economy that has lost its direction and threatens to engulf our individual dreams and national hopes. But it’s even crazier not to try. G3