The Back Page

A CALL TO INACTION

Two years in, and Paul Martin is still figuring out what he doesn’t know

PAUL WELLS November 7 2005
The Back Page

A CALL TO INACTION

Two years in, and Paul Martin is still figuring out what he doesn’t know

PAUL WELLS November 7 2005

A CALL TO INACTION

The Back Page

Two years in, and Paul Martin is still figuring out what he doesn’t know

PAUL WELLS

“MR. SPEAKER, for well over a year and a half the minister has devoted 24 hours a day to Aboriginal Canadians,” Paul Martin said the other day in the Commons. The minister in question, Andy Scott, was having a rough week. Well, perhaps not as rough as the residents of Kashechewan.

Devoted 24 hours a day, you say? Great. How? “We have had cabinet meetings with Aboriginal leaders,” Martin said. “We have had round tables. He has done everything to build up toward the first ministers’ meeting.”

So this is how Martin’s minister has met grace in the boss’s eyes: he has had meetings, and meetings on his way to meetings. He was planning even more meetings to discuss Kashechewan’s fine array of poo-based water products when the Ontario government did something the Martin government finds disorienting: it acted. Kashechewan’s most endangered residents were airlifted out. Dalton McGuinty, who delivered the orders, made it quite clear this wasn’t an Ontario premier’s job. But since it should have been the feds’ job, and they were busy in meetings and round tables, McGuinty picked up the slack.

Welcome, once again, to Paul Martin’s Ottawa.

This week’s column celebrates an anniversary of sorts: it was Nov. 14,2003, when Martin delivered his acceptance speech to rapt Grits at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Martin’s hold on the top seat is surer this November than a year ago. The polls show support for the Liberals holding steady ahead of the Conservatives, if not far enough for complete comfort. The government is getting a few things done. On Friday, Ken Dryden signed a daycare deal with Quebec, making it the eighth province to join the legendary goalie’s new adventure in social engineering. Military spending is on a gentle upward slope. It ain’t the Ritz, but it’s something. Right now Martin seems likelier to be re-elected than to be knocked off at the next election.

Which means the big guy can continue his education. It is appropriate that Martin, a fan of lifelong learning, still seems to be figuring things out. Oddly basic things. People disagree! They can tell when you don’t know what you think! They laugh when you tell them Belinda Stronach’s new cabinet job has nothing to do with winning a confidence vote! If Martin wrote a self-help book along the lines of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, his would be called All I Really Need to Know Was a Mystery To Me Until I Passed Retirement Age and Nearly Lost the Job I’d Wanted All My Life.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is that big problems don’t go away with a smile. Martin’s original appeal to the Liberal party and the electorate was that he could make a real difference on the most intractable challenges facing the nation. Take these four from a longer list: western alienation, Quebec nationalism, our relationship with the United States, and

the fate of Canada’s Aboriginal populations.

Last week’s nasty lesson was that these problems aren’t just tougher than they look; they’re actually tied together, like some infernal string puzzle. Trying to fix one makes another worse.

Condoleezza Rice came to town. True, the U.S. secretary of state did visit dozens of other countries and, by my count, six alien solar systems before making it to Ottawa. Still, she arrived. Still, she was miffed to learn that Canada-U.S. meetings these days are mostly lists of Canadian demands. Let our softwood in. Keep your guns out. Don’t ask for passports when we visit. Rice was grandly unimpressed.

To get the Americans’ attention on softwood, Martin’s people have lately threatened to take Canadian oil and sell it to Asia instead of to the Yankees. Problem: it’s mostly Alberta’s oil. “I say ‘No’ to making energy a pawn in an unrelated trade dispute,” Ralph Klein said last week in Lethbridge. Some Albertans are tired of being mentioned in Ottawa only when Martin wants to sell Alberta’s products or demonize its policies.

The same disillusionment is felt, perhaps even more keenly, in Quebec. Nationalists who thought Martin would be less rigid than Jean Chrétien find him too willing to pop his head into provincial business. Martin retorts that there’s a “national interest” in child care and health care and, well, in whatever interests him, so the Constitution doesn’t matter.

Problem: there is also a national interest in the federal government doing its own work before it does that of the provinces. First Nations health is the federal government’s job. We were reminded last week that the federal government’s handling of that job has been a disgrace. If this government did less work that it shouldn’t, it could do more work that it should. One more lesson for the big guy. If it isn’t already too late. I?]

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