Politics

HOW THE WEST MIGHT BE WON

Paul Martin is sensitive to Western Canada’s concerns. Will that be enough?

October 27 2003
Politics

HOW THE WEST MIGHT BE WON

Paul Martin is sensitive to Western Canada’s concerns. Will that be enough?

October 27 2003

HOW THE WEST MIGHT BE WON

Paul Martin is sensitive to Western Canada’s concerns. Will that be enough?

In the last federal election, the Liberals took 14 seats in the four western provinces. That’s not a lot in a region with 88 ridings, but it’s arguably an improvement over the single-digit results the party has posted in other elections over the years. In fact, the most the Liberals have ever won west of the Ontario-Manitoba border is 43 ridings—and that was back in 1940. But Paul Martin has vowed that westerners will have a seat at the table when he is prime minister, and even before taking office is reaching out to the region in a way few Liberal leaders have before. Calgary Bureau Chief Brian Bergman and Ottawa Bureau Chief John Geddes examine Martin’s efforts to woo the West.

BERGMAN

For years—nay, decades—western Canadians took comfort in the certain knowledge that no one in Ottawa gave a damn about them. It was a truism exquisitely embodied in Pierre Trudeau’s one-finger salute to protestors from his train car while travelling through the B.C. Interior. Or by Brian Mulroney’s decision to award a lucrative federal contract to a Montreal aerospace firm rather than a more deserving one in Winnipeg—a move that almost single-handedly spawned Preston Manning’s Reform party. Or Jean Chrétien’s determination to not once set foot in Liberal-phobic Calgary during the last federal election.

Ah, those were the days.

But wait: what shining star is this we see from the east? Paul Martin says he will judge the success of his regime by its ability to assuage, if not entirely slay, western alienation. What’s more, Martin insiders say the big guy really means it. So after years—nay, decades—of peering over the Ottawa River to ponder what exactly Quebecers want, the feds may soon be doing an Exorcist-style head spin to contemplate what, er, those other folks are going on about. For westerners like me. it’s a reffesh-

ing, if somewhat unnerving, change. After all, what if they actually listen to us?

Dave Bronconnier, Calgary’s popular first-term mayor, knows a thing or two about what a hair shirt Liberalism can be in this part of the country. Six years ago, Bronconnier ran, and lost badly, as a federal Liberal candidate. “People here feel the values of an entire region are ignored,” says the mayor. “Western Canadians feel democracy is stale.” His solution? A vigorously reformed and elected Senate.

The sound you hear is a collective groan from east of Kenora. Surely, not that old chestnut again? Sorry, afraid so. Polling done by the Canada West Foundation, the region’s foremost political and social affairs think tank, shows 84 per cent of westerners want an elected Senate in which each province has the same number of seats, a move aimed at providing an effective counterbalance to the representation-by-population House of Commons. Support is firm in all four provinces, and across age groups and genders. “With those kinds of numbers,” says Canada West president Roger Gibbins, “it’s pretty much like asking, ‘Do you believe in Christmas?’ ” In the rest of the country, polls show people evenly split on the Senate’s fate, with half wanting to abolish it and the other half to reform it.

A recent Canada West report co-authored by Gibbins came up with 10 ways Ottawa (read Martin) could ease regional tensions. Among them: give provinces direct input into international trade agreements that affect them, and make sure that western Canadians are better represented in the public service. As for the Senate, the report proposed only incremental changes, such as having the prime minister appoint senators based on lists submitted by the provincial and territorial governments.

Canada West took a lot of heat from the region’s pundits for not pushing outright for a so-called Triple-E Senate. But that’s a recipe for failure, says Gibbins, because Quebec and Ontario will balk. His hope is that western provinces would elect their senators and thereby put pressure on others to do the same—much as happened with the U.S. senate a century ago. Having said that, Gibbins stresses that significant movement on Senate reform is essential if Martin hopes to win over the West. “It’s a litmus test,” he says.

Gibbins thinks other aspects of Martin’s agenda, such as looser party discipline and greater revenue-sharing for municipalities, could have broad appeal in the region. So are we headed for a new era of national harmony? And, if westerners are left with nothing to complain about, are we in danger of losing our identity? “That’s not a frivolous question,” says Gibbins. “The one thing that knits us together is distaste for Ottawa. You strip that away and it’s quite possible the West would no longer see itself as a distinctive political community.” The skeptical westerner in me says not to worry. It will never come to that.

‘PEOPLE here feel the values of an entire region are ignored. Western Canadians feel democracy is stale.’

GEDDES

Paul Martin grew up in Ontario. He made his fortune as a businessman in Quebec. But his most powerful political organizer, David Herle, and closest allies in Jean Chretien’s cabinet, Anne McLellan and Ralph Goodale, are all from the West. After securing the delegates he needed to sew up the Liberal leadership a few weeks ago, Martin headed straight to B.C., where he showed proper politic concern over the devastation caused by forest fires. It’s all more than a coincidence: Martin wants desperately to break the long drought of Liberal political fortunes west of the Manitoba border.

The preoccupation is not a new one for the man whose prime ministerial dreams go back who knows how far. One of Martin’s earliest forays into top-level political activity-before he was a well-known quantity in Ottawa circles—showed his frustration with Liberal insensitivity to the western point of view. Back in 1980, after then-energy minister Marc Lalonde introduced the National Energy Program, the party’s uneasy rapport with the West quickly began to sink to an all-time low. Doug Richardson, now a Saskatoon lawyer, was then a rising Liberal activist and would soon be an aide to Lalonde. He remembers how Martin, then a Montreal businessman and opposed to the NEP, took the initiative in setting up a series of private meetings between Lalonde and business leaders, including westerners, who were aghast at the direction Pierre Trudeau’s government was taking.

Richardson says Martin’s sympathy for the energy-producing west and his pro-business outlook went together then—and still do today. It was the same centre-right mindset that John Turner, who as an MP represented a Vancouver riding, tried to instill in the federal Liberals when he succeeded Trudeau. But Richardson says even Turner, whom he served as chief of staff, didn’t have the knack for making westerners believe in him that Martin demonstrates. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a Liberal leader who understood the West the way Paul Martin does, including Mr. Turner,” he says.

Herle, who is from Saskatchewan and is widely acknowledged as Martin’s top organizer, is so powerful that any suggestion of western issues being slighted while he’s at the table is viewed as absurd. Add to that Martin’s close ties to Alberta’s McLellan, the health minister, and Saskatchewan’s Goodale, the public works minister, and the Prairie perspective is amply represented. Some Martin insiders view Chrétien as having failed the region. They were furious, for instance, when Chrétien joked during the 2000 election, “I like to do politics with people from the East. Joe Clark and Stockwell Day are from Alberta. They are a different type.”

Martin must now prove he is different from past Liberal leaders. His reputation as a deficit-slaying, tax-cutting fiscal conservative helps a lot. But how deep do those instincts run? “Ontario and Alberta introduced across-the-board tax cuts first,” Canadian Tax Loundation senior researcher David Perry observes. “Martin was drawn rather reluctantly into it.” It’s commonplace to note that Martin embodies elements of both fiscal “blue” Liberalism and his party’s progressive side. If Martin as prime minister decides to exercise the latter set of instincts— the ones inherited from his late father, a founder of universal social programs—righttilting westerners might re-evaluate him.

And then there’s Kyoto. Martin says he’s for Canada’s meeting its greenhouse gas reduction commitments—just not in a way that would “disadvantage certain provinces or regions.” A policy for cutting fossil-fuel burning that managed to be seen as just dandy in Alberta would be quite a feat. But then, nobody said being a Liberal prime minister and being popular out west was going to be easy. I?il