Politics

TWISTING OVER KYOTO

The greenhouse gas accord has meant big headaches for Paul Martin

JULIAN BELTRAME December 2 2002
Politics

TWISTING OVER KYOTO

The greenhouse gas accord has meant big headaches for Paul Martin

JULIAN BELTRAME December 2 2002

TWISTING OVER KYOTO

Politics

JULIAN BELTRAME

The greenhouse gas accord has meant big headaches for Paul Martin

AS PERFORMANCE theatre, Paul Martin’s coming-out party last week on Kyoto wasn’t pretty. In a hastily arranged scrum at an Ottawa hotel, the undisputed front-runner in the Liberal leadership race gave his best impression of a raw understudy unexpectedly pressed into action. He stammered, halted, repeated key phrases and liberally sprinkled his responses with “ums,” “ahs” and painful pauses. He’s inclined to support the Kyoto Protocol, which compels Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012, Martin hesitantly ventured. “That being said,” he further qualified, “I believe it is very important [pause] that [pause] it is much more

preferable if we can achieve national consensus, ah, on the implementation plan.” It was vintage Martin, but not the polished finance minister who for years deflected opposition attacks with a quick wit and a sure grasp of facts and figures. This was the other Martin, the one who so often fumbled issues unrelated to his portfolio. It was the Martin of March, 2000, who was unable—in two separate attempts—to explain why his political aides and allies held a secret meeting at a Toronto hotel that the media characterized as a get-Chrétien bull

session. Or the Martin who repeatedly avoided stating clearly whether he favoured the government’s legislation outlining the conditions for any future independence referendums in Quebec. “I don’t know that he’s yet made up his mind on the Clarity Act,” says Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper. As for Martin and Kyoto, Harper remains unsure. He believes Martin wants to delay ratification to allow the parties to reach a consensus, Harper said, but “if that’s his position he should state that and make sure we don’t proceed.”

For Chrétien loyalists, Martin’s discomfort with Kyoto is delicious irony. Just last month, they note, the former minister en-

couraged his allies in caucus to buck the Prime Minister and vote to allow MPs to choose committee chairs by secret ballot. Kyoto demonstrates the pitfalls of loosening party discipline that Chrétien had warned about, they say. With Liberal backbenchers having enjoyed that whiff of freedom, the government’s critics will try to use a divideand-conquer approach on other, more substantial, issues.

Including Kyoto. Harper pounced last week, saying his party would not view a negative vote on Kyoto ratification in the House in December as a statement of non-confidence in the government. It was a nice try to get Kyoto skeptics in the Liberal caucus— Martin perhaps among them—to vote freely without fear of triggering an early election. But Chrétien wasn’t taking any chances. The Prime Minister told the House of Commons that ratification of Kyoto was a firm commitment the government made during its Speech from the Throne in September. In other words, party discipline rules.

Of greater significance to the party, say the former minister’s Liberal critics, is that Kyoto is once more putting on public display a discomforting Martin trait—his Hamlet-like indecisiveness. Detractors, particularly from other leadership camps, have often complained that the media have failed to put Martin’s feet to the fire on the tough calls, permitting him to appear sympathetic to all sides when he actually has difficulty taking a position. As Martin waffled on Kyoto, for instance, supporters of the accord gave him the benefit of the doubt because of his avowed support of environmental causes. Kyoto opponents, on the other hand, have been able to see Martin as secretly sympathetic to their cause.

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein has even mused that Martin as prime minister might balk at implementing the accord. Last week, tabling legislation that seeks to put greenhouse gas emissions under provincial jurisdiction—a possible precursor to a court challenge of federal powers to impose restrictions on emissions—the Alberta premier held out hope that Martin would one day come to the province’s rescue. Liberal MPs, including Martin, will likely vote in favour of the accord, he acknowledged, “notwithstanding the fact I’m convinced some members of the Liberal caucus have grave concerns.”

Martin insiders, however, say there is no going back on implementing Kyoto once it’s

The former finance minister’s critics gleefully say his waffling over ratifying the accord has put his indecisiveness on public display

been ratified. They note that Martin, then the Liberals’ environment critic, argued for even harsher emissions reductions at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. His concern is more with the process than the content, they stress: had the government made a conscientious effort to bring industry and the provinces onside and clearly outlined the costs and benefits of Kyoto, Martin would not have vacillated. In the clearest enunciation of his position last week, Martin also tried to dispel the notion of reneging on Canada’s commitment. “I believe that countries that sign agreements should live up to those agreements,” he told reporters.

So why so much trouble to say so little? One problem is the embarrassment of rich support he’s garnered across the country, including Alberta, which views Kyoto as National Energy Program II. Wholeheartedly

endorsing the accord risks alienating people who have worked tirelessly, and in the case of the business community, donated generously, to help him realize his political ambition. “To see Paul Martin shilly-shallying, now starting to bend to the big corporate backers of his candidacy, is truly revolting,” decried NDP Leader Alexa McDonough.

Kyoto also undermines Martin’s long game—the election that follows the leadership contest. Western Liberals view the fiscal conservative as their best chance in decades to break the Tory-Reform-Alliance domination of the region. But Kyoto jeopardizes all that. A recent poll found Albertans so incensed over the accord that 55 per cent would consider separating from Canada rather than submit to Ottawa’s unilateralist approach. Harper says the poll confirms his own impressions. “It’s quite clear to me that anger over Kyoto is growing and that it is being seen as not just a bad public policy issue, but another example of the Liberal party’s anti-Alberta positioning,” he says. Last week, the government, which can also read polls, made major concessions in its blueprint for implementing the accord. In one climbdown, some businesses would be allowed to miss their emissions targets if they commit to deeper cuts after 2012.

Martin aides insist their boss’s reservations over Kyoto are about policy, not politics. On the campaign trail, he emphasizes his record of consulting widely before bringing down budgets. The deficit could never have been eliminated, he says, without first achieving a national consensus that it had to go, even at the price of curtailing social programs. “He truly believes he could have persuaded leaders in industry and more provinces into taking a softer line on Kyoto,” said one Martin insider. “Maybe it wouldn’t have happened, but you gain something from being seen to have tried.”

Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, positioning herself as the anti-Martin candidate in the leadership race, is certain it wouldn’t have happened—because of Alberta. “If you’re going to wait to get a consensus from that government, you’re going to be waiting until my granddaughter is the minister for Canadian heritage,” she scoffed. Then she challenged Martin: “When one is a leader, one has to show leadership.” By waffling for so long, Martin has given his detractors ammunition—and perhaps caused others to wonder if he has what it takes to lead. JIfl