Paul Martin has a proven track record as a gambler who wins

Peter C. Newman November 24 2003


Paul Martin has a proven track record as a gambler who wins

Peter C. Newman November 24 2003


Paul Martin has a proven track record as a gambler who wins


HISTORY NEVER repeats itself, but it teaches lessons.

The last time the Liberal Party of Canada renewed itself was in 1968, when Pierre Trudeau took over and began his 16-year reign. John Turner, who succeeded him, exercised too precarious a hold on the party to make it his own, while Jean Chrétien, who assumed the leadership in 1990, won the three elections that followed simply by emphasizing that he wasn’t Brian Mulroney, Preston Manning or Stockwell Day.

Captivated by the Trudeau legend, most Canadians have forgotten that Lucky Pierre

wasn’t the Liberal party’s natural choice at that faraway leadership race. It took four hard-fought ballots for him to wrestle the leadership (with only 51.1 per cent of the votes) from the party machine, lined up behind Robert Winters, a hard-right candidate who had the advantage of familiarity among the delegates.

It was only after the convention and dur-

ing the election which followed, that Trudeau remade the Liberal party to suit his priorities. Although his flamboyant style was that of a radical reformer, his legislative record re-established the Grits as sedate populists with a mission. Which is precisely what Paul Martin’s first task will be: he must rapidly rebuild

He is driven to live up to Martin Sr.’s legacy

the Liberals as a party dedicated to change, reform and new policy directions, endowing it with some higher sense of purpose than merely perpetuating itself in power.

That was the missing element during Jean Chrétien’s interminable term. His three majority election victories were based on nothing more inspiring than the inability of his opponents to field credible alternatives. That inattention to the future has left the Liberals devoid of new initiatives deserving of a mandate next spring. With the right united and a revived NDP, Canada’s “natural governing party” can no longer expect to win by default. Nor should it.

Because he has had to be so painfully circumspect over the past year in order to pre-

vent Chrétien from losing his temper and pulling the plug to take a fourth run at the brass ring, Martin must now hastily fill the policy gap. At the very least, the new leader must clearly demonstrate his potential for growth, which shouldn’t prove too difficult. What Canada desperately needs, if this country is serious about becoming a player in the globalized, digitalized, urbanized and specialized economic environment of the 21st century, is a regime change, almost as profound as Iraq’s, though a lot less bloody. We are emerging from 10 lost years, when Chretien’s one-man style of government prevented Canada from being seriously considered as anything but an unruly and irrelevant backwater, run for the selfish benefit of its PM’s narrow view of the country and the world.

Catching up will require Martin to reassert his gambling instincts. He gambled against heavy odds in 1981 when he acquired Canada Steamship Lines from Paul Desmarais’s Power Corp. in a leveraged buyout that extended his personal financial exposure beyond reasonable limits. He gambled most dangerously when he set out to steal the party from Chretien’s self-centred leadership, a tactic common enough among Tories, but such a coup d’état had never been attempted during the Liberals’ long and successful history of dominating Canadian politics by ruling with discreet efficiency.

In policy terms, Martin gambled most courageously in 1995 when, as finance minister, he brought down a revolutionary budget that reversed the country’s nanny approach to governing. Up until his harsh edicts came into force, Canadians had enjoyed living in a fiscal Disneyland. They expected to go on enjoying the snoozy notion that they would retain universal access to social welfare largesse as an unalterable right, even when Ottawa was clearly heading for bankruptcy. At the time, the federal debt (growing at more than $100 million a day) was the equivalent of 93 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. In other countries, the International Monetary Fund was being called in to enforce draconian cost-cutting measures where that ratio had reached 100 per cent, a level only months away from happening here.

Martin reduced federal government expenditures to 1950s proportions (as a per-

centage of GDP), slashed social programs and eliminated tens of thousands of public service jobs, ending Canada’s age of entitlement. “The Martin budget marks the end of Canada as we know it,” declared Bob Rae, then Ontario’s socialist premier. And it did, but it also saved the country. Under Martin’s focused management, the federal budget has been balanced since 1998, when it boasted the first surplus in 28 years. The current debt-to-GDP ratio is less than 50 per cent.

What was admirable about this exercise of fiscal butchery was Martin’s political finesse

in making the medicine go down. The Liberals post-budget popularity actually went up and Martin was hailed as the hero of an otherwise listless administration, which was what triggered Chretien’s blood feud with his finance minister in the first place. “It was a fabulous budget,” Angus Reid, then the country’s top pollster, told me, “as brilliant in its pre-selling as in its execution.”

WHAT Canada needs desperately is a regime change, almost as profound as Iraq’s, though a lot less bloody

The expectations for Paul Martin have climbed so high that he is bound to fail, but his record indicates otherwise. He has been preparing for this job, long before he stole the Liberal party out from under its faltering leader. In September 1992, when Paul Martin Sr., the social animator of the Liberal governments of the 1940s and 1950s, was on his deathbed, there was a final family gathering. The father turned to the son of the same name and solemnly predicted: “I was the father of Canada’s social revolution; you will create the country’s economic revolution.”

What’s driving the younger Paul, now 65, is his steely determination to live up to his father’s legacy. On Sept. 17,1992, Paul Martin Sr. was buried with full honours in Windsor, Ont., the hometown that he turned into his own backyard. It took four bishops and a dozen priests to officiate at his funeral service; his body was borne away by no less than 75 Knights of Columbus, done up in black suits and red capes. I was there and thought I saw the young Martin faintly nodding toward the coffin, in confirmation of his destiny. “It was,” I wrote at the time, “less the burial of a man than a generation.”

Now it’s time for Junior to play his chips, lifl