Politics

LIBERALS AT THE ABYSS

Paul Martin may be unable to navigate the Chrétien ‘puddle of sleaze'

Peter C. Newman April 12 2004
Politics

LIBERALS AT THE ABYSS

Paul Martin may be unable to navigate the Chrétien ‘puddle of sleaze'

Peter C. Newman April 12 2004

LIBERALS AT THE ABYSS

Paul Martin may be unable to navigate the Chrétien ‘puddle of sleaze'

Peter C. Newman

IN THE PAST five months since Paul Martin became prime minister, the Liberals have lost the right to call themselves Canada’s Natural Governing Party. Their vaunted reputation for passable ethics and acceptable efficiency, which maintained them in office during most of the past century, has burst the dikes of credibility. Liberal ministers and functionaries have been revealed as having turned their once-unassailable political machine into an instrument of personal greed that was bribable, purchasable and, it turned out, degradable. All that Jean Chrétien left behind was a puddle of sleaze.

With the avalanche of accusations cascading out of Ottawa, it’s worth remembering that Chrétien only gave up the keys to the Prime Minister’s Office to avoid Auditor General Sheila Fraser delivering the goods while he was still in power. He left three months before his original exit date because he knew she would publish the details of how his gang abused the public trust in allocating $ 100 million in questionable fees and commissions.

In other words, while Paul Martin is getting the heat for the massive misuse of federal funds that has discredited the Grits, none of it took place during his watch as prime minister. He may or may not have known about it, but he certainly had no control over its grubby details. His reaction may not have been as swift or decisive as Canadians deserved, but at least he chose the most honest option.

After a previous shift in Liberal ranks, John Turner made the opposite choice and dug his political grave. It was an electrifying moment, worth recalling in the current circumstances. A few months beforehand, when Pierre Trudeau took his famous walk in the snow and decided to quit, he was not the saint we posthumously celebrated, but a used-up politician who had overstayed his time. His last weeks in office were marked by one of the greatest ever orgy of patronage appointments (146 in two days alone). He still managed to leave 17 other senior positions to be filled by Turner, his successor, who did so, claiming, during that epic TV debate, that he had “no option.” To which Mulroney, the Conservatives’ freshly minted leader, shot back: “You had an Option, sir, to say ‘no,’ and you chose to say ‘yes’ to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal party.”

It was that exchange which triggered the Mulroney landslide that followed, though once in office, the Tory PM failed to take his own advice. Martin was faced with a similar choice: he could have stonewalled or he could have accepted responsibility for trying to reform the Liberal party. He chose the latter, more difficult route and his decision may yet sink him. While it’s much too early to assess Martin’s strategy of trying to reverse years of sleaze, neither is it fair to blame him directly for the dirt that’s being turned up as various investigations dig deeper into the Chrétien record.

During his interminable decade in office, Jean Chrétien enjoyed the advantage of having a lapdog ethics commissioner who held office at the PM’s pleasure, leaving him to do exactly as he pleased. The PMO swelled to imperial proportions as Chrétien moved the country from one-party rule to one-man government. Innocent of vision or innovation, he created the climate within which corruption was encouraged to flourish, and personally set the example. His repeated interventions on behalf of Yvon Duhaime, the owner of Auberge Grand-Mère in Chretien’s home riding, to boost the value of the adjoining golf course that the PM once had an interest in, became his obsession. He shamelessly used the powers of his office to strong-arm officials of the Business Development Bank to approve loans for the hotel.

There comes a point in the life of every political movement when its capital is used up, and almost regardless of what its leader says or does, it has passed the point of no return. Paul Martin stands on the edge of that abyss. The last time the Liberals faced this grim a prospect was when their arrogance boiled over during the infamous Pipeline Debate of 1956.

At the height of that shameful process, the Liberal government usurped the powers and presumed neutrality of the Commons Speaker and deprived Parliament of its fundamental democratic rights of debate. “This sickness will not be cured until the Canadian people win back parliamentary government,” declared constitutional critic Eugene Forsey at the time. “The first step in the cure is to turn the Liberals out.” That was exactly what happened, when John Diefenbaker unexpectedly came into power a year later, sending the unrepentant Grits into the political wilderness for most of seven years.

That may be the only cure this time. Fortunately we have an intelligent and presentable alternative in Stephen Harper, whose strategic skills and low-pressure tactics may be exactly what this country needs to regain its political self-respect. What we have yet to learn about the new Conservative leader is whether he is merely a Stockwell Day with brains, or can turn himself into a healing influence with an enlightened view of Canada’s role in the 21st century.

Ultimately, Paul Martin’s test will be even tougher: can he field a fresh team that will restore the public’s confidence not only in his government, but in the political process itself. Or will only the humiliating catharsis of defeat, followed by an extended sojourn in political purgatory, achieve that state of renewed grace? His mission begins, not ends, when he proves that his government can keep its fingers out of the cookie jar. Much more significant will be Martin’s ability to awaken in his fellow Liberals (and that majority of Canadians who either belongs to no party or curses them all) an awareness of their potential and how it can best be realized within the context of his approach to governing.

MULRONEY turned his debate over patronage with Turner into a landslide-and then ignored his own advice

Martin is a passionate politician. I have been interviewing him regularly since 1988, and each time I’ve come away reassured by the range of his ideas and his fist-thumping enthusiasm explaining them. But ever since he took over, all I keep hearing is that he and his team are desperately scrambling to enlist senior public servants to come up with instant policies that might garner votes. That’s not only wrong, but dumb. It’s time for the real Paul Martin to stand up, state his business and get serious about governing this country, instead of running scared and hoping to somehow sweet-talk the voters into a mandate.

Meanwhile, how can Canadians, frustrated beyond endurance by years of unbridled corruption, take a government to heart when Heritage Minister Hélène Scherrer has the nerve to insist that the sponsorship scandal is “just another dossier”?

At the moment, with the Liberals reduced to a minority in the polls by a resurgent Bloc Québécois in their traditional Quebec stronghold and with both the Conservatives and NDP under new dynamic leadership, there’s only one safe prediction about the forthcoming election campaign: anything can happen and probably will.

Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly. pnewman@macleans.ca