COLUMNS

BEHOLD THE IRRELEVANT PM

In Quebec, Martin simply doesn’t figure in the fast-evolving narrative

PAUL WELLS June 20 2005
COLUMNS

BEHOLD THE IRRELEVANT PM

In Quebec, Martin simply doesn’t figure in the fast-evolving narrative

PAUL WELLS June 20 2005

BEHOLD THE IRRELEVANT PM

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

In Quebec, Martin simply doesn’t figure in the fast-evolving narrative

PAUL MARTIN REMAINS CONSISTENT. The Prime Minister responded to the Supreme Court decision on health care with all his favourite techniques. There was denial (“We’re not going to have a two-tier health system in this country. Nobody wants that”). There was loaded language designed to kill any hope of holding an adult conversation (“two-tier health care”). There was the super-creepy assumption that he deserves credit for things his father’s generation did (“Mr. Speaker, I rise as the leader of the party that brought medicare into being”).

Aristotle was right: character is defined by habitual action. Or as Wynton Marsalis puts it in a new book, what you do is what you will do. Martin’s techniques have served him well: he’s walking all over Stephen Harper in the latest polls. He is surrounded by people who tell him the only proper way to behave is the way they have been telling him to behave since 1990. He hasn’t actually accomplished much in the big job, but that’s okay as long as he refuses to notice it (see “denial” above).

And while the Prime Minister’s expressive eyes sometimes betray exasperation at the failure of the world to see things the way he sees them, they show no hint of self-doubt as he strolls into each new minefield armed with the tool kit of a demagogue.

Given all that, you’ll be happy to know things are heating up in Quebec. Bernard Landry is on his way out as Parti Québécois leader—party members wanted to give him a little jolt by withholding clear support in a confidence vote, and he gave them a bigger jolt by quitting. So at least he has a sense of humour.

Anyway, the dour little corporal of Quebec separatism is riding off into the sunset. It’s not clear who’ll replace him. Maybe Gilles Duceppe. Maybe somebody even less exciting. So there’s no reason to assume Canada is doomed. Still, storm clouds are gathering.

Whoever it is, the new PQ leader will be fresh, at least. This will make life even

harder for Jean Charest. The curly cherub departed for Quebec City with such high hopes, but he has become almost inexplicably unpopular: 77 per cent disapproval in one recent poll, which makes him only slightly more popular than lint.

Charest himself may yet get heaved overboard by his party and the Montreal business elite in favour of a new leader, most likely the Liberal health minister, Philippe Couillard. But now Landry and the PQ have ensured that any such move will look like a copycat ploy. So the Liberals in Quebec have to be considered a long shot to win the next election, probably in 2007.

That means Martin may yet live to see whether he’ll have any better luck dealing with a PQ government than his predecessors did. It’s a test I suspect he’d rather not face. And there’s more: if Landry didn’t win enough approval to keep his job, it’s because he disappointed the most militant

faction of the PQ, the ones who haven’t the faintest interest in power unless it allows the PQ to lead Quebec to secession. It will be hard for anyone to win the top PQ job— especially an outsider like Duceppe—without making promises to the PQ’s radical wing. So a PQ victory may lead directly to another referendum.

What’s most striking, as all of this happens, is that nobody seems particularly interested in what Paul Martin will do about it.

The finer Montreal newspapers hardly mention the Prime Minister in their coverage of these events. Sometimes commentators point to him in passing, the way you might point at a motionless car as you pass it on the highway. “Quebec is now in a prereferendum period,” Jean-François Lisée, the charming former journalist who counselled Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, wrote last week In La Presse. Lisée credits “10 years of mourning” after the 1995 referendum, John Gomery’s sponsorship horror show, and “the extraordinary political weakness in Quebec of two men who were once the incarnation of federalist hope: Jean Charest and Paul Martin.”

Martin has become the least relevant prime minister to Quebec politics since Joe Clark, and almost certainly the least relevant prime minister on the file from Quebec since Confederation, although I confess I haven’t looked too closely into John Abbott’s national unity performance. It’s not that Quebec federalists are lamenting his action or his inaction or whatever you want to call it. It’s not that separatists are shaking their fists and calling him names as he foils their plots. He simply doesn’t figure in the province’s fast-evolving narrative. He’s not there.

Martin’s time-honoured tool kit will serve him poorly if the crunch comes. This time he won’t be able to offer two or three million Quebecers cabinet seats in return for changing their votes. Pil

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