IN FEBRUARY, 2004, when his moment in the sun finally comes, Paul Martin Jr. will be on the downhill slope to his 66th birthday. Older than Preston Manning. Older than Brian Mulroney. Older than Joe Clark. Just slightly younger than Tommy Hunter. It might not be polite to say, but the dauphin is getting long in the tooth.
This, of course, is the logic behind the squeeze-play Jean Chrétien and his advisers executed last week, in delaying the Prime Minister’s departure for another year and a half. Soon enough that it would seem ungracious to further hurry a man who has delivered three consecutive majority governments. Sufficient time to (hopefully) shiv his chief political rival by fostering a dark-horse candidate for the Liberal leadership, or an anybody-butPaul coalition. A final bid by Yesterday’s Man to make sure Martin’s tomorrow never comes.
Theoretically, 18 months is an eternity in politics—long enough for the national landscape to change, long enough for the opposition to finally get its act together (maybe they were on a 10-year plan all along). Gilles Duceppe could be struck by lightning and develop charisma. Stephen Harper could get pec implants. The Tories might find a leader who won’t remind Canadians why they vowed never to vote for them again. The NDP could . . . OK, this is where the theory falls apart.
Those risks have been calculated and dismissed as remote. As much as they loathe Martin, Chrétien supporters aren’t eager to surrender their party’s prerogative to govern in perpetuity. Their strategy is to make Martin run by himself for a while. To leak a few more negative stories about the multi-millionaire former finance minister’s health or business dealings. To see how dynamic a man who turns 64 this week looks without a 68year-old incumbent to tilt against.
The question is, should the rest of us care how old the next PM is? Martin is no
slouch. A success in the private sector, he has earned almost universal respect since entering public life in 1988. He balanced the budget and helped reduce the debt. Born and raised in Ontario, he is fluently bilingual and well-liked in Quebec. He has trained much of his life to become prime minister and wants the job more than words can express. Martin would hardly be the oldest Canadian PM—Sir Charles Tupper was 74 when he took office, while four others have been 65 or older. Ronald Reagan was 73 when he won his second term, after deftly defusing the age issue by promising not to exploit Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.” (Though one imagines Martin’s people won’t be making any comparisons to the Gipper since Reagan may have been suffering from the
early affects of Alzheimer’s during his final years in office.)
But despite the precedents and Martin’s obvious qualifications, age is, and should be, an issue. If Canadians are tiring of the Chrétien government’s perceived arrogance and anemic agenda, how would the priorities and direction of a Martin-led Liberal party be substantially different? The two men are, after all, of the same generation. They have worked together closely, albeit grudgingly, for nine years. Won’t Canadians just be exchanging one elderly patrician lawyer for another?
Anyone unlucky enough to have been born after the boomers knows the tyranny of that demographic bulge. Their preoccupations—health care, retirement planning, hair loss, the Rolling Stones— dominate our political and cultural agendas, and will do so for years to come. To put it in perspective, Martin is from the generation before them—the people who wouldn’t know a Simpsons reference if they ran over it on the Matlock Expressway. Boomers are infamous for their Peter Pan-ish reluctance to grow old gracefully. Perhaps that explains their apparent eagerness to hand the reins to yet another prime minister who was born before the Second World War. If, as we are frequently told, the social, economic and political challenges of the new century are different from those of the past, wouldn’t a younger politician be a better choice? (NB: This is not an endorsement of Ezra Levant—for anything.)
The massive outpouring of grief for Pierre Trudeau two years ago suggests Canadians of all ages long for a national leader with both flair and vision. True, Trudeau was 48 when he beat Paul Martin Sr. to win the Liberal leadership in 1968, but much of his appeal was that he seemed younger, more vigorous, dedicated to new and different ideals. Stockwell Day’s sad tenure as a federal leader proved the electorate favours competence over style and youthfulness, but should a politician who combines those qualities come along, things won’t be quite so simple for the heir apparent. As things stand, Paul Martin is lucky Allan Rock and John Manley don’t look comfortable driving trendy sports cars, or God help us, wearing capes.
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