Chapter 1

THE FIGHT OF THEIR LIVES

February 6 2006
Chapter 1

THE FIGHT OF THEIR LIVES

February 6 2006

THE FIGHT OF THEIR LIVES

Chapter 1

He had been working toward this job for nearly 30 years, and now they were making him fight for it once again.

Nov. 29,2005, dawned in Ottawa the way November days usually do in the capital: grey, gloomy, not too cold but hardly promising. In the semicircle driveway at 24 Sussex Drive, a familiar line of dark sedans formed the traditional prime ministerial motorcade: RCMP in front and rear, a couple of cars for staffers, and one for the Prime Minister. Paul Martin sat in his familiar seat, his wife, Sheila, by his side.

They weren’t going far. Rideau Hall is only about a five-minute walk up Sussex Drive from the prime minister’s residence. Their proximity dates from the days when a governor general really was a prime minister’s boss, confidant, mentor and imperial chaperone. In fact, the last time Paul Martin had gone to Rideau Hall to ask its occupant to dissolve Parliament—only 18 months earlier, in May 2004—he had done it on foot. Like just about everything else in the rookie Martin government, that 2004 trip hadn’t gone quite according to plan.

Martin had gone strolling up Sussex Drive, Sheila at his side, aides and bodyguards around them, with the usual clot of network camera crews just ahead, walking backwards to send the moment live to a waiting nation. The little gaggle promptly barrelled straight into a knot of tourists who’d hurried to the GG’s house to watch the historic moment. PM, factotums, gendarmes, cameras and tourists made the most ungainly procession imaginable. Martin slowed to a snail’s pace to ensure nobody got trampled. It took forever to get to the door of Rideau Hall. The TV pictures were horrible.

So much for that. This time, Martin’s tidy little motorcade closed the distance between his front door and Michaëlle Jean’s in three minutes. The newly appointed viceroy consulted in private with her Prime Minister for a little less than a half hour. Then Martin emerged back into the gloomy morning to meet the waiting reporters.

In a brief prepared statement and his answers to questions from reporters, Martin sketched the themes of the campaign as he saw them: regret that it even had to happen; pride in a strong economy; and a clear warning that the only possible way to screw it up was to vote for the parties that had recklessly forced this election in the first place. It was a profoundly stay-the-course message.

“A minority Parliament means the opposition can force an election whenever it chooses,” he told the cameras, scowling faintly. “In this case, I believe ambition has overwhelmed common sense.” He listed two bounties of good government that his scheming opponents had kept from Canadians’ grasp by defeating the Liberals: “establishing benchmarks to reduce wait times in health care” and “making sure Canadians receive the full benefits of the tax cuts announced by the finance minister.”

It was an odd choice of examples. Two weeks later, the provinces would announce their wait-time benchmarks, entirely unperturbed by the unfolding campaign. As for the tax cuts, Finance Minister Ralph Goodale had back-loaded most of his tax relief until 2010. So the “full benefit” would have had to await an election in any case, maybe two, even if the opposition parties behaved.

No matter. This wasn’t a logic class, it was a campaign. Martin put an end to the morning’s only remaining suspense by naming the date of the vote. “A general election, one forced over the holidays by the three opposition parties, will be held on Monday, Jan. 23.”

Eight weeks. It would be the longest election campaign since Brian Mulroney won in the landslide of 1984. Since then, to reflect the tempos of a nation made smaller by television and communications satellites, a new minimum length for campaigns had been set at five weeks. Every subsequent prime minister had stuck to that minimum. Until this one.

At the Conservative party campaign headquarters in a consummately nondescript office tower on Ottawa’s Albert Street, organizers for Stephen Harper set aside one set of briefing binders and planning books and opened a second. The Conservatives had planned their entire campaign, down to the day, in two versions. One for a five-week campaign ending in the first week of January; the other for a full eight weeks. “If it’s five weeks, we have a busy schedule,” one of Harper’s most influential advisers told Maclean’s the night before Martin’s trip to Rideau Hall, as parliamentarians were gathering in a packed House of Commons for the confidence vote that would bring the Martin government down. “If it’s eight weeks, we have...less. Money is the limiting factor.”

What was holding the Conservatives back wasn’t how much money they had. It was how much they were allowed to spend. One of Jean Chrétien’s last acts as prime minister had been to severely restrict corporate and union donations to political parties. The limits severely cramped the style of the Liberal party, which was used to depending on a fairly small number of well-heeled donors. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were heirs to the Reform party’s extraordinary success at getting smaller donations from a much larger base of donors.

“We have so much money,” another top Harper aide would admit at the end of the campaign’s first week, shaking his head in amazement. “We have shitloads of money. Way more than we can spend in a campaign. In a way we wouldn’t have minded Martin’s preferred schedule, which was to go in February, because we could have run this huge pre-writ campaign”—a blitz of television, radio and newspaper ads and direct mail, all of it unregulated by Elections Canada spending limits.

Then why pull the plug ahead of that schedule? “Because you have to strike while the iron is hot. We’re happy to do that. But now we’re capped at $18.3 million for the whole eightweek period. We don’t get any more money just because it’s a longer campaign. So we have to be careful how we spend it.”

The Prime Minister took five questions before leaving Rideau Hall to begin his marathon campaign. The first was from Peter Chura of Toronto’s Citytv. “Prime Minister, many are predicting a negative campaign,” he said. “Will your party use negative campaign ads?”

“I’m going to very much campaign on our record and where we want to take the country,” Martin replied gamely, “and I believe in this country so much. And I am so optimistic about where we’re going and what kind of a nation we can build. And I’m going to be talking about that record. I’m going to be talking about our promise and how we can achieve it.”

So: nothing but bright sunshiny days. Right?

“And of course in the course of that campaign I am going to be pointing out the differences between Stephen Harper and myself, the differences between the other leaders and myself,” Martin continued. “And I will be pointing out where our values are, where their values differ. I’ll be pointing out our record and the kinds of things that we support. Fundamentally, I believe in this country and I’m going to be talking about the kind of nation that we can build.”

The reporters listening to the Liberal leader’s exquisitely couched reply chuckled to themselves. “Pointing out where our values differ?” Translation: you bet your life he was going to use negative ads.

If there is a constant in this fickle and flighty nation, it is the political ambition of guys named Paul Martin. There has been a Paul Martin running for the job of prime minister since before we had medicare or the Parti Québécois—indeed, since before Newfoundland joined Confederation. Old habits do die hard.

Over the course of his 40-year career in politics, Paul Martin Sr. became a candidate for the leadership of

the Liberal Party of Canada every time the job came open.

The vintage Ontario constituency MP and social reformer, born to francophone parents in 1903, had no chance to mount a serious candidacy in 1948, when William Lyon Mackenzie King

finally gave up his seemingly endless reign as Liberal leader. There were few things in Liberal Ottawa that King didn’t control, including the elevation of his successor, the courtly Quebec City lawyer Louis St. Laurent.

But Paul Martin Sr. couldn’t simply let another man walk into the job. In this magazine in 1948, Blair Fraser described a bizarre scene at the Ottawa convention that crowned St. Laurent as leader. A “draft Paul Martin” movement, of unverifiable spontaneity, sprung up across Ottawa in the middle of St. Laurent’s coronation. It reached its zenith and its nadir simultaneously, when hundreds of boisterous Martin supporters trailed a bagpiper into the hall—and barged right in on King’s farewell speech. Martin protested that he had done nothing to encourage these rebels. Fraser wrote that, while that may be true, Martin’s colleagues wished he had done more to discourage them. “They think he stood too long under the mistletoe, for a girl who was supposed to be engaged.”

When all of this happened, Paul Martin Jr. was 10 years old.

THERE HAS BEEN A PAUL MARTIN RUNNING FOR PM SINCE BEFORE WE HAD MEDICARE— INDEED, SINCE BEFORE NEWFOUNDLAND JOINED CONFEDERATION

By 1958, Paul Martin Sr. had hit his prime. He had been a health minister with a decade of reforms under his belt. He was as experienced and wily a man as any the Liberals had. But three months before the Liberals chose St. Laurent’s successor, Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work defusing the Suez crisis. There would be no arguing with a Swedish jury. Martin’s time had gone again.

He served Pearson as a loyal lieutenant, and in 1968, the leadership once again came open. This time it was Trudeaumania that put paid to the Martin family ambitions. The elder Martin accepted a Senate seat from his glamorous new leader and limped into the history books.

Yet before too many years had gone by, a new generation had risen to carry the torch. In 1977, the elder Martin wrote in a diary about a conversation with his son Paul, who had made a pretty good go of things in business in Montreal. Paul Jr. was thinking of running for Parliament. After all, he’d likely get into cabinet if he won. “He has the bug, I’m afraid,” the father wrote about his son.

Indeed. Early in 1979, the subject rose again. “Last night he

said, ‘Dad, I want to have a talk with you soon. Now is the time to get my feet wet,’ ” Martin Sr. wrote. “He even went further and said, ‘Now is the time for me to begin to become a candidate for the prime ministership.’ Shades of the father!”

Paul Martin Jr. has never been hesitant about citing his father as an influence for the politics he practises and the policy he preaches. But it would be too simple to say the younger Martin imitated the elder. Like George W. Bush, a very different political heir, Paul Martin Jr. sought also to learn from his father’s mistakes. Where the father had lacked caucus support, the son would become every Liberal MP’s friend and confidant. Where the father had accepted the label of oldfashioned machine politico, the son would work hard to distance himself from that image.

There is one more thing. Christina McCall, the pre-eminent historian of Grit court in-

trigues, once wrote that naked ambition had helped sink the father in 1958, when he missed his best shot: “He wanted power, curious creature, and he let people see this base desire.” Lesson learned. Paul Martin Jr. would do everything he could to hide the desire that drove him. Which is not quite the same as saying it wasn’t there.

And then, after all that, Paul Martin Jr. finally gets the job he and his father wanted for half a century... and it’s barely worth having.

The public release of Sheila Fraser’s audit into sponsorship and advertising programs came on Feb. 10,2004. Paul Martin had been prime minister for two months. He knew what was coming, and his staff, whom he often calls the best campaign team in history—Martin is not a particularly meticulous student of history—had come up with a plan. Rather than sweeping the abuses Fraser chronicled under the rug, they would insist the mess was at least as bad as it looked. But Paul Martin had known nothing about them. Indeed, he was the providential man who had come to effect repairs. He would sic a commission of inquiry onto his own party, cashier a few relics of the old regime, tour the country rending his garments, and become the change his pollsters told him Canadians wanted.

It didn’t work very well. Almost overnight, the Liberal brand sank from the reliable majority territory it had commanded for a decade after 1993 toward more precarious realms. Jean Chrétien had fought the Bloc Québécois onto the ropes in Quebec, routinely polling well ahead of the separatist party through 2003; when word of his Quebec operatives’ shadier techniques got out, the Liberals’ Quebec vote collapsed to the low 20s. The effect was less pronounced, but similar, across the country. Martin had always planned to call an election as soon as he could after taking power, so he could get his own mandate for his own program. What he got instead was the first minority Parliament in 25 years.

In the 17 months his government survived, Martin did manage to deliver on two major policy planks. He convened the premiers and, after days of arduous negotiation, got them to accept yet another massive injection of federal cash for health care. And for an exgoalie, his rookie social development minister, Ken Dryden, showed early promise on offence, getting signatures on 10 federalprovincial child care agreements.

But mostly the first Martin mandate was fought in the corners with elbows up. Stephen Harper and his deputy leader Peter MacKay hammered the Liberals day after day on the (often wildly contradictory) allegations arising from public testimony at Justice John Gomery’s sponsorship inquiry. When the Gomery hearings got particularly juicy in April, Harper said it was time to pull the plug. He would seek any opportunity to bring the Liberals down in a confidence vote. The Liberals gained a little breathing room when Jack Layton, the NDP leader, decided he’d rather show his party could get some of its policies implemented in a minority Parliament than help sack the Grits. They got a bit more when Martin’s staff orchestrated the stunning defection of Belinda Stronach from the Conservative benches to the Liberal cabinet.

But Martin’s luck started running out for good when Gomery released the first volume of his report on Nov. 1. The judge found “a depressing tale of greed, venality and misconduct” and described “an elaborate kickback scheme” designed to benefit the federal Liberals’ Quebec wing. Within days, Layton said he too was ready to express non-confidence in the Liberals. With no other party on their side, the Liberals had no hope of surviving. The stage was finally set on Nov. 24. Harper moved —seconded by Layton—“That this House has lost confidence in the government.”

The lead story in that morning’s Globe and Mail carried the headline, “PM plans negative campaign.” The meat of the piece was a briefing Charles Bird, a senior Liberal organizer for Ontario, had given his troops a few days earlier. Bird had said that the opposition parties, especially the Tories, would run a relentlessly negative campaign. As for the Liberals, “We will give as good as we get.”

If Harper’s speech on the non-confidence motion could be seen as foreshadowing the Conservative campaign line, the Tory broadsides would be harsh indeed. Twice the Conservative leader told the Commons the Liberals had carried out their foul deeds “with the help of organized crime.” He rattled off the same depressing list of Liberal misdeeds that had fuelled his Question Period attacks for more than a year.

“We have seen one minister of immigration have to resign over favouritism in giving out visas, while the next one billed taxpayers $138 for pizza, all defended by the Prime Minister,” Harper said. “We have seen Art Eggleton, a man that Jean Chrétien fired from the cabinet for giving an untendered contract to a former girlfriend, get rewarded with a seat in the Senate.”

On and on Harper went. He paused briefly to list Liberal failings on criminal justice, national unity and budget-making. But once again, there was no hint about what a Conservative government would do differently. For all the world it looked as though Harper planned to try to prosecute his way to victory.

And while all this was happening inside the Commons, something else was happening outside, across the nation.

It started raining money.

Newsrooms on Parliament Hill tend to be spartan affairs. Reporters, as a breed, are not accomplished decorators. The typical Hill bureau comes decked out with only a few staple items: parliamentary phone directories, fax machines, piles of news releases, televisions eternally tuned to CBC Newsworld or CTV Newsnet—and ancient wall-mounted speakers.

The speakers bring reporters news releases read aloud by the staff of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, in the gallery’s offices on the sixth

floor of the National Press Building. Every once in a while, typically three times an hour or so, the speakers crackle to life: “Your attention please. We have three decisions from the CRTC.” “Your attention please. This is to remind you of a news conference by Jason Kenney...” Or whatever.

In the third week of November, the speakers started squawking more frequently. And on Nov. 24, the day of Harper’s confidencemotion stemwinder, the number of announcements skyrocketed. Across Canada, Liberal ministers, ex-ministers and hopeful future ministers had fanned out to announce stunning amounts of new spending. On the first day of that week there had been 11 such announcements. Today there would be 30.

Wayne Easter announced $483,900 for a theme park in Cavendish, P.E.I., Robert Thibault announced $2.6 million for a conference centre in Cornwallis, N.S., then delivered $201,500 for art gallery renovations in Yarmouth.

Aileen Carroll delivered $64 million for various international development-assistance projects. Her colleague Belinda Stronach announced $1.1 million for police training. And $882,000 for “skills development in the international trade sector.” And almost $8 million for “skills development in the technology and software sector.” And $78,700 to integrate immigrants into the workforce.

For any minister in ordinary times, it would have been a banner day. But given the scale of this money blizzard, Stronach might as well have slept in. David Emerson announced $1.4 billion to prop up the nation’s besieged forestry industry. Joe Volpe announced $700 million to modernize the immigration system. Scott Simms and Geoff Regan announced two different infrastructure deals, the first for $28 million in St.John’s, the second for $37 million in Upper Tantallon, N.S. And on and on it went.

Later, when the unprecedented blizzard of Liberal expenditure was over, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation toted up the costs. In the first three weeks of November, the Martin government had announced $24.5 billion in new spending. That figure represented about 15 per cent of total federal program spending for a year.

Of course, most of the ministers insisted, none of it had anything to do with the election. “This didn’t happen overnight,” Stronach told reporters. From Emerson, much the same tune. “Are we trying to do what the public would like us to do?” he asked. “Yeah, that’s what we’re here for and if people in an election say, ‘We like what you’re doing,’ that’s good,” he said. “[But] what we’re doing are initiatives and policies that are built on a solid public policy foundation.”

Of all the ministers who had fanned out to put some yummy spending in the pre-election wind-down, only Reg Alcock came close to admitting as much. Alcock was the Treasury Board president. His job was to survey the mechanics of government spending.

Perhaps professional pride goaded him to a higher level of frankness. “This is all within the fiscal plan of the government,” Alcock told reporters.

“But we are now moving harder and we are moving faster to get as many of the programs out the door. It was not planned this way. But we are not operating on our schedule.”

When the schedule finally caught up with the Liberals, on Nov. 28, it could hardly have been more anticlimactic. Members spent half an hour filing in. For a long time they flooded the normally empty centre aisle, chatting, shaking hands and gossiping across party lines. Jacques Saada, the Liberal minister for La Francophonie, spotted Don Boudria and hugged him hard. Boudria had been Chrétien’s house leader, relegated to the back benches by Martin. He was retiring—this would be his last night in the Commons. Saada’s political future was also on the line: against a resurgent Bloc, he faced a tough fight in his Brossard-La Prairie riding south of Montreal (he’d end up losing).

In the Senate gallery, looking down across the House at the Liberal benches, Senator Jim Munson watched the bustle below. Munson was a veteran CTV reporter who’d become Jean Chrétien’s communications director in 2002 and had been appointed to the Senate as one of Chrétien’s last public acts. He shouted across to his former colleagues, packed three deep in the press gallery: “Start the wave! Start the wave! Come on!” Munson tossed his arms skyward in an attempt to get the old football cheer going. He found no takers.

'WE HAVE SO MUCH MONEY/ ONE HARPER AIDE ADMITTED AFTER WEEK ONE.'WE HAVE SHITLOADS OF MONEY. WAY MORE THAN WE CAN SPEND IN A CAMPAIGN/

As the members stood to vote, those who would not run again received raucous applause from their colleagues: Conservatives Darrel Stinson and Dave Chatters, both fighting cancer, first and loudest of all. Then Ed Broadbent from the NDP, Claudette Bradshaw and Marlene Catterall for the Liberals.

When it was over, Peter Milliken, the jolly little Commons Speaker, read the results: Yeas 171, Nays 133. The first Martin government was dead.

There’s some old video footage of the defeat of Joe Clark’s government in 1979. It ends with MPs and observers throwing a shower of loose-leaf and shredded paper into the air, celebrating the giddy uncertainty of an election many hadn’t expected. Now a half-dozen Liberal MPs tried to recreate the moment, tossing skyward some sheets of paper they had taken pains to pre-shred. The effort seemed more pathetic than festive. There wasn’t enough paper and, more to the point, there wasn’t nearly enough surprise. You really can’t recreate past glories. The chamber emptied within minutes.

Day 1 of the campaign of his life, and here comes Stephen Harper, barrelling toward glory as if shot from a cannon. Or, more accurately, not.

At his opening news conference, in the lobby of the House of Commons, the Conservative leader rang all the classic challenger bells: time for a change, an end to corruption,

a brighter future. The reporters who would spend the first week travelling with him asked him a few questions. One was about same-sex marriage. Another, asked at the same time, was about some less thorny topic. Harper took the easy question. Nobody would have been surprised if that was that, at least for the first day. But at the end of his remarks, Harper made a point of coming back to the same-sex question.

“We were committed at the time of the [party policy] convention and through the last debate to put a free vote to the next Parliament on this issue,” he said. “If that motion is defeated, we won’t proceed. If it is passed, we will proceed.”

Across Canada, Conservative supporters watching on television must have felt a brief moment of panic. Was it happening again? Already? The campaign had barely begun and Harper seemed to be getting caught up in controversy over divisive social issues. Near the end of the week, a Liberal war room insider would point to this moment and predict that antics like the same-sex marriage outburst would seal Harper’s fate. “At the end of the day, people don’t like him,” the senior Liberal said. “You can shine him up but he’s still the same.”

Harper’s next 36 hours wouldn’t go much smoother. At a rally in west-end Ottawa for John Baird, a former Ontario cabinet minister now running for the federal Conservatives, Harper seemed unsure of himself. He introduced MPs who’d shown up for the rally.

“And there’s one more—I haven’t seen him but I’m sure he’s here—our defence critic, Gordon O’Connor!” Harper said.

The crowd roared.

O’Connor was standing on the podium with Harper, not seven feet to the leader’s left. He waved sheepishly.

But soon Harper gave his first hint that this campaign might go differently from the endless prosecutorial harangue the Liberals were expecting. “Now, this election will not only be about Gomery,” he said. “Judge Gomery looked at the past. We are looking toward the future now.”

Easier said than done. The next morning in Quebec City, Harper stood in front of eight candidates and announced the first new plank of a Conservative platform. A new “office of the director of public prosecutions.” A full-time prosecutor to decide whether and how to proceed with federal prosecutions. Why? To “decide on prosecutions arising from the sponsorship scandal.”

Right away, Harper ran into two problems. First, he couldn’t name any of the candidates standing behind him—even though he had begun his campaign in Quebec City because he claimed the Conservatives had a shot at a breakthrough there. Hours later, in Halifax, Harper’s own deputy leader, Peter MacKay, cheerfully disagreed with his claim that a federal prosecutor would prosecute sponsorship malfeasance. “There’s no way,” MacKay said. “This office wouldn’t deal with Criminal Code offences.” Whoops. Reporters traded knowing glances. There’s nothing more fun to cover than a disaster.

And then, on the second full day of the campaign, Harper pulled out of his nosedive. He strolled into 2001 Audio Video in Mississauga, Ont., slapped a “GST/TPS 5%” sign onto the cash register, and announced a twostage reduction of the hated tax. The day after that, in Winnipeg, he promised, in effect, to implement the Kirby Senate report on health care wait times, paying to fly patients to other jurisdictions if they couldn’t get timely care at home. Finally, on Saturday in Burnaby, B.C., Harper promised tougher penalties for drug crimes.

In a truncated first week, the Conservative had made his way from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, releasing a policy plank a day and working far more diligently to define himself than to attack Paul Martin. The Liberal, meanwhile, had shuttled between Montreal and Toronto giving rousing speeches to campaign rallies and rebutting Harper’s announcements one by one.

It was an oddly minimalist way to begin what could be Paul Martin’s last campaign. Privately, Liberals admitted they were saving their ammunition for after Christmas. And they were surprised that Harper hadn’t made the same decision.

Why hadn’t he come out on ethics, corruption and the Gomery report? “We fully expected to get absolutely hammered in the first couple of weeks,” the Liberal war room strategist said. “The Tories are saving the hard negatives for later in the campaign.” Still, if all Harper was talking about was how he’d govern, the Liberals were relieved. “We’re happier having the debate on policy than corruption.”

John Reynolds was the veteran Conservative MP, a former Social Credit speaker of the British Columbia legislature, who served as Harper’s House leader and national campaign co-chairman. Tall and silver-haired, a man who enjoys a steak dinner and some good wine, Reynolds wasn’t running for re-election, but he was near the centre of Harper’s drive for power.

REYNOLDS KNEW WORSE WOULD COME. THE LIBERALS WERE COMPILING FOOTAGE OF TORIES, HOPING SOMEONE WOULD SAY SOMETHING EXTREME.

Why had Harper started the campaign by reopening the same-sex marriage debate? “Why save that for the last week?” Reynolds replied. “It’s out now. Anybody asks him that question between now and election day, he’ll be able to say, T’ve already discussed that issue.’ So it’s gone.”

Betraying a hint of self-satisfaction, Reynolds said the Liberals seemed a little disoriented by the rest of the week. “I think they really expected that we would come out hammering on the Gomery stuff the first week, see how alive we could keep that,” he said. “We came out with positive issues, platform items. So I think that’s thrown them off their game a little.”

But Reynolds knew worse would come. Privately, Liberals said they were compiling video footage of Conservative candidates and party officials, hoping one or more of them would say something that would sound extremist. It hadn’t gone unnoticed by the Conservatives. “We’ve seen people at meetings—and we’ve been told of people at meetings—taping people,” Reynolds said. Was he worried? He said not. “Those things are available against them, too.” The Conservatives were stockpiling their own list of incriminating quotations by senior Liberals. “I mean, they really think we’re stupid if we don’t.” When the campaign turned dark, Reynolds said, the Conservatives would be ready.

As for Martin, his first week ended with two moments that showed his greatest strength, and his most enduring weakness. His greatest strength was his tremendously appealing personality. It had allowed him to recruit support from far outside the old Liberal family: Scott Brison and Belinda Stronach, both lured to the Liberals from the Conservatives; Ujjal Dosanjh, the former

NDP premier of British Columbia; even Bono, the crusading rock star who spoke at Martin’s coronation as Liberal leader. On Dec. 2, Martin visited a Canadian Auto Workers event in Toronto and basked in the lavish praise of the mighty union’s president, Buzz Hargrove, who was supposed to be an NDP supporter. Hargrove hugged the Prime Minister, gave him a union jacket, and said the Liberals had delivered so much in 17 months that they deserved a stronger minority this time. “I could listen to you all day,” Martin said.

And maybe he should have. Because when he left the CAW event to speak to reporters, Martin stopped listening and opened his mouth, revealing one of his most surprising but intractable failings: a tin ear for the politics of his adopted home province, Quebec. A reporter for La Presse asked whether the coming election would be an élection référendaire—literally, an election that would act as a referendum on Quebecers’ desire to stay in Canada or leave it. “I think it really is an élection référendaire,” Martin said, “certainly according to the Boisclair-Duceppe duo.” He was referring to Gilles Duceppe and the young new Parti Québécois leader, André Boisclair. “There’s now a pact between them. The first step is the election ofjan. 23.”

It was an extraordinarily reckless position for a Canadian prime minister to take, especially with the Bloc hovering over 50 per cent in the polls. In the four decades since the Parti Québécois had been founded, no sovereigntist party had ever broken the psychological barrier of 50 per cent in the popular vote. Now Martin was giving the Bloc a licence to claim that, if it broke through the 50 per cent barrier, no less an authority than the Prime Minister had recognized the political impact of such an outcome. And for Paul Martin, it was only the beginning of his Quebec troubles.