Politics

THAT VISION THING

The election-bound PM was supposed to inspire us, but it’s been big talk and small steps, says PÂUL WELLS

May 10 2004
Politics

THAT VISION THING

The election-bound PM was supposed to inspire us, but it’s been big talk and small steps, says PÂUL WELLS

May 10 2004

THAT VISION THING

Politics

The election-bound PM was supposed to inspire us, but it’s been big talk and small steps, says PÂUL WELLS

HISTORY MAY YET RECORD that the last week of April 2004 was the week Paul Martin finally began to turn things around.

The Prime Minister had a successful, or at least blunder-free, trip to Washington. The polls finally ticked a little higher for the Liberal Party of Canada after a period of harrowing decline. Politicians and Ottawa reporters began clearing their schedules on the assumption that Martin will call a federal election on May 9 for a June 14 vote.

At a pizza-and-beer evening meeting of the Liberal caucus on April 27, Liberal MPs were handed pamphlets featuring everything Stephen Harper ever said that can be made to sound scary, at least to Liberals. (In what is becoming a typical blunder that drives embattled Liberal MPs from Quebec to distraction, the pamphlet was printed in English only and offered not a clue about combatting the dangerously resurgent Bloc Québécois.)

The attack against Harper is shaping up as a centrepiece of the Martin campaign. Harper’s Conservatives “actually don’t like Canada the way it is,” Martin adviser David Herle told reporters recently. “They do think it’s some socialist backwater that’s in decline and they do think that it needs to be fundamentally changed.”

In this pause before the storm of an election campaign whose outcome cannot be predicted, maybe it’s time to ask a few questions.

How did Paul Martin—the golden boy for whom Liberals hounded Jean Chrétien from office despite three majority election victories in a row—sink to the point where his own majority teeters on a razor’s edge?

How did the man who splashed the title “Making History” across the text of his first speech as Liberal leader become so embattled he’s reduced to running on fear and denigration of his opponent?

And when did Paul Martin become the defender of “Canada the way it is”—not an advocate of “fundamental change,” but a defender against it?

“A year ago, all over my riding, people were telling me they couldn’t support Liberals until we got rid of Chrétien,” a battleweary Liberal MP from Atlantic Canada said last week. “Now when I go back, the same people tell me, T miss Chrétien.’ ”

Already, it’s hard to recall the promise many saw in Martin as recently as November, when his leadership campaign steamroller finally rolled into the Liberal convention at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. The venerable Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn sensed a “stirring and inspirational” dose of “the vision thing” in Martin’s acceptance speech—a sense of the national dream, Gwyn wrote, that only Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker, Wilfrid Laurier and John Macdonald have ever been able to tap into.

The reviews didn’t stay sweet for long. By March 23, the venerable Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson said Martin had got off “to a worse start than any since Joe Clark’s in 1979.” (Maybe that’s why Clark has been expressing a grudging preference for Martin over Harper in the coming election: he senses a kindred spirit.)

Of course, something big happened on the way to the coronation: the auditor general’s stunning revelation of massive misspending and, perhaps, corrupt management in the sponsorship program Chrétien concocted after the 1995 Quebec referendum. The drop in the polls into public opinion’s red zone was instantaneous. Martin’s novel reply—a cross-country tour that lasted weeks and underscored his willingness to “get to the bottom” of the scandal—had no discernible effect on voter intention until after it had finally, mercifully ended.

The sponsorship scandal is more problem than any prime minister should have to inherit. But it is also hard to believe that if the scandal had never happened, a visionary Martin would today be busy making history to the sound of delighted applause from Canadians in general and the press gallery in particular.

WHEN did the Liberals’ golden boy sink to the point where the party’s majority teeters on a razor’s edge?

gallery particular. He has other problems. Confusion. A management style built around Byzantine committees that meet endlessly but whose decisions, when there are any, seem to cancel each other out. An addiction to promising big and delivering small. And the impression that the only people in any danger from Martin’s attempts to get to the bottom of wrongdoing are those who had the poor judgment to align themselves with Chrétien instead of Martin.

Martin sure talks a good game, albeit in stilted and cliché-encrusted fashion. “Some people have said that in our desire to transform the way Ottawa works, we are moving too fast,” he said in a March 26 speech in Winnipeg. “I don’t agree. I believe there are times when the only way to achieve genuine change is to shock the system. In any large institution, there is simply too much inertia supporting the status quo.”

The system, for what it’s worth, is shocked. By some counts, one-quarter of federal civil servants have been shunted to new jobs since Martin took office. But the “system” isn’t opposed to Martin’s reforms, really; like the rest of us, it’s just trying to figure out what they are.

Sources say that at least three times since Martin became prime minister, the entire staff at Ottawa’s immense Pearson Building, home to the Department of Foreign Affairs, has been invited to “transition meetings” at which confused bureaucrats crowd into an auditorium and talk through their frustration and confusion.

On some of the biggest files facing any government, confusion reigns under Martin. Take the global Kyoto accord to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, a very unpopular policy in Alberta’s oil patch. The Speech from the Throne that inaugurated Martin’s government committed it to developing a “plan” to meet Canada’s Kyoto targets. But there has been no hint of progress toward a plan. And observers as diametrically opposed as Lome Taylor, the Alberta environment minister who wants Kyoto scrapped, and David Suzuki, the environmentalist who finds Kyoto profoundly insufficient, have said they think Martin’s on their side.

Now, Kyoto’s a tough file for a prime minister who hopes to pick up seats in Quebec, which is pro-Kyoto, and Alberta, which isn’t. But Martin didn’t get this job by promising to split differences and confuse everybody. Even when it’s clear where he’s going, it’s often because he’s going pretty much where Chrétien was headed.

The Throne Speech announced a Centre for First Nations Government—two months after Robert Nault, Chrétien’s Indian affairs minister, announced the same thing in Vancouver. Martin showed up in March at an announcement of more than $500 million in research funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, never mentioning that the process to decide who’d get the money had begun more than a year earlier.

The March budget, which carried the lofty title “New Agenda for Achievement,” drew a straight line from Chrétien’s old agenda. Budget documents were full of odes to the wisdom of John Manley’s 2003 budget.

Again, just as it’s Martin’s big talk that makes his modest steps jarring, so it’s his dogged insistence on his own novelty that makes his rehashing of Chrétien-era policy so funny. Martin’s official Web site trumpets his “New Approach” and “New Team.” The cornerstone of his defence on the sponsorship scandal is the surprising assertion that he didn’t know what Chrétien was spending during all the years Martin was the senior minister in charge of, uh, spending.

But there is one area in which Martin has been diligent in marking a break from the Chrétien years. That’s his willingness to make trouble for Chrétien’s friends and loyalists, or stand aside while trouble gets made for them. Martin made a defensible case for sacking some Chrétien appointees, like Alfonso Gagliano as ambassador to Denmark and Jean Pelletier as head of VIA Rail. But other incidents are just creepy.

What is one to make, for instance, of the refusal to let Steven Hogue run in SaintMaurice-Champlain, Chrétien’s old riding? Hogue is a soft-spoken former Chrétien press spokesman who wanted to replace the boss as MP for the Shawinigan area. The Quebec wing of the Liberal party told him he couldn’t even seek the nomination— because he’s a man.

That’s odd. Close friends of Martin like Dennis Dawson and Jean Lapierre, both men, had no trouble finding Quebec ridings to run in. Martin improvised an explanation: it was “crucial” that women be given “winnable” ridings in Quebec so more women can get into Parliament.

KARMA has a way of catching up with youMartin has made novelty his watchword, but is stuck in well-worn ruts

The explanation melts under scrutiny like snow in July. The ridings the party reserved for women are, for the most part, Bloc strongholds. Martin doesn’t think it’s “crucial” to block men outside Quebec; just ask Sheila Copps, whom Martin refused to protect in Hamilton, or Ujjal Dosanjh, the former NDP premier of British Columbia, whose gender didn’t keep him from a Liberal nomination.

But the universe reserves a measure of poetic justice for purveyors of the hypocrisy that has governed the Hogue affair. When Hogue protested his treatment, his appeal was rejected unanimously by the Liberals’ Quebec electoral commission. One member of that commission was a woman named Caroline Savic. Several weeks after she ruled that Hogue’s gender was a deal-breaker, Savic lost the Liberal nomination in the supremely winnable Liberal stronghold of Lac-SaintLouis. The candidate who won the nomination, Francis Scarpaleggia, is a man.

Karma has a way of catching up with you. Martin sounds the revolution, yet his armies’ cannons fire blanks. He makes novelty his watchword but is stuck in well-worn ruts. None of this dooms him. Campaigns of mistrust worked to sharply limit Reform’s gains in 1997 and the Canadian Alliance’s in 2000. Another might yet shut the Conservatives down in 2004.

Here, too, the letdown is stunning. If Martin were to beat the Conservatives using such a well-worn Liberal playbook, it would prove only that his campaign style, like his governing agenda, is dominated by the shock of the old. PI