Columns

Greasy-spoon politics

Allan Rock and Paul Martin used to eat cheeseburgers together. Now, others try to make them enemies

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 26 2001
Columns

Greasy-spoon politics

Allan Rock and Paul Martin used to eat cheeseburgers together. Now, others try to make them enemies

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 26 2001

Greasy-spoon politics

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Allan Rock and Paul Martin used to eat cheeseburgers together. Now, others try to make them enemies

In the early months following his election as a rookie MP in 1993, Allan Rock left his family behind in Toronto when he went off to Ottawa. It didn’t improve his disposition—he was noticeably less chipper without them—but it did cement his relationship with Paul Martin. Because Rock’s evenings were his own until his wife and kids moved up to join him, he could indulge his fondness for greasy-spoon diners as often as he wanted. That made him a natural dinner companion for Canada’s finance minister—a notorious junk-food junkie who is incapable of passing a hotdog stand without experiencing immediate, incessant hunger pangs. Rock and Martin also had— and have—much more in common: both, to enter politics, gave up jobs that paid much more, both believe deeply in the power of government to do good, and both, to the sometime despair of others, are hopeless policy wonks who relish occasions like complex issue briefings from civil service advisers. Rock and Martin became the sort of friends whose fondness showed up in the way they mocked each other.

“That s.o.b. Rock,” Martin once said.

“Not only does he never gain weight from those dinners”—this with a pat of his own stomach—“but he has way more hair than I do”—this with a mb of the bald patch at the crown of his head.

That was then. These days, if you believe official Ottawa, Rock and Martin are on a collision course that will only end-—badly, at that— when one or the other eventually succeeds Jean Chretien as leader of the Liberal party and prime minister. Every public appearance, speech and piece of legislation they make is parsed by journalists and others with an eye as to how it will affect their leadership hopes. Any time one disagrees with the other in cabinet meetings—an inevitable occurrence between a finance minister, who controls the money, and a health minister, who invariably wants more money—the exchange is perceived as hard evidence of a growing schism between the two frontrunners. Throw in the way the two men interact with Brian Tobin and John Manley—the other Libs to be taken seriously in a leadership race—and it seems a wonder that anything gets done amid all the scheming, backbiting and infighting.

Except, of course, that things are never as straightforward as that. In fact, the way the undeclared leadership war has played out says a lot about the nature of politics overall—fraught with as many layers, plots, counterplots and subtexts as a le Carré novel. Sure, both men are running hard for the same prize—the efforts of Martin supporters have been too well publicized for his liking, while Rock has occasionally boasted privately that he has at least one organizer on the ground in every one of the country’s 301 ridings. But anyone looking for specific evi-

dence of ill will, or of the two men trash-talking each other in private, won’t find much. Relations are still very civilized, and not only between the two direcdy: their senior staff advisers— Scott Reid with Martin, and Cyrus Reporter with Rock—are also great pals. You have to move much lower down the pecking order before you find real discord. When Brian Tobin left Ottawa to become premier of Newfoundland in 1996, he essentially told putative leadership supporters that they were free to ally themselves with others. Since Tobin is a favourite of Chrétien—and it’s absolutely true that the PM and Martin get along like two cats in a sack—a lot of those people went over to Rock, as much as anything to block Martin. Those people, Martin supporters say, are much more likely than traditional Rock supporters to play hardball on issues.

At the same time, Tobin’s various pronouncements and forays across the country since his return to federal politics have led to a lot of grumbling at high levels within the party, as well as renewed discussion of his own leadership hopes. But the truth is that of of all the wanna-be leaders, he’s arguably the guy who has worked hardest to play by the rules by not attempting, so far, to rebuild his old organization, and he’s also certainly the one who had done the least to annoy the PM. The worst that can be said about Tobin is that he’s guilty of being himself (although, to some Libs, that’s enough of an offence). He’s a microphone hog by instinct and an undeniably eloquent one, and his habit of judiciously leaking to selected reporters information that reflects well on him, or badly on enemies, has won him important friends in the Ottawa press gallery. Tobin never denies he wants to be leader someday, but he’s a fervent loyalist to the existing boss who would never do anything to undermine him. No wonder the PM loves the guy.

In the end, it’s possible to feel a bit sorry for them all—even though no one forced Martin, Rock & Co. to the stage they’re at. Imagine what it would feel like if every day that you went to the office, scores of people were scrutinizing everything you said, noting whom you talked with at the water cooler, and wringing their hands with delight every time you made a joke about a co-worker. Imagine that all those details were made public the next day, reported with varying interpretations, and all that information was duly funnelled to your boss—with heavy emphasis on the fact your efforts were aimed at taking his or her job. That’s the way life really is in Ottawa, if you’re smart, ambitious and well connected enough to rise above the rest of the herd, and to dream about something more. Maybe the next time Rock and Martin grab a burger, they should bring Tobin along—and that fellow Manley, too.