Politics

LAYING OUT THE MARTIN RULES

The new Prime Minister is wasting no time in putting his stamp on Ottawa

PAUL WELLS December 29 2003
Politics

LAYING OUT THE MARTIN RULES

The new Prime Minister is wasting no time in putting his stamp on Ottawa

PAUL WELLS December 29 2003

LAYING OUT THE MARTIN RULES

Politics

The new Prime Minister is wasting no time in putting his stamp on Ottawa

PAUL WELLS

PAUL MARTIN waited a long time to take over—long enough that it seems he could barely wait to make Ottawa his town. Before heading off to his farm in Quebec’s Eastern Townships for Christmas, the newly minted Prime Minister laid out a sweeping agenda for changing the way the federal government works—and laid down the law on the way it spends. It’s far too early to guess how Martin will fare on what he says are his big objectives: strengthening Canada’s “social foundations” in health care and education; building up a “21st century economy”; and promoting the country’s “pride and influence” abroad. But there’s enough in what he did in his first days in office that he won’t fail for lack of boldness. His vow to reform the way Supreme Court of Canada judges get their jobs shows Martin isn’t shying away from controversy. His moves to set a new tone on the very files that had earned Jean Chrétien kudos for making Canada cool shows he’s not afraid to break with the recent past. And his dramatic signal that no current spending is safe from the axe leaves little doubt that it’s his agenda —not the status quo—that’s going to get funded. Here, Maclean’s takes the pulse of a capital under new management.

JUDGING THE JUDGES

Pierre Trudeau’s appointment of Manitoba judge Brian Dickson to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1973 was, in hindsight, a key moment in Canadian legal history. After Trudeau’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms revolutionized Canadian law—and politics—it was Dickson, presiding as chief justice from 1984 to 1990, who set the tone for the Charter era with a series of landmark rulings. Now, a new prime minister is proposing reforms to the way Supreme Court judges are chosen that might have stopped the legendary Dickson, who died in 1998, from agreeing to sit on the top court. Paul Martin promises to give a parliamentary committee power to review Supreme Court nominations before they are made final. Kent Roach, co-author of the new biography Brian Dickson: A Judge’s Journey, says Dickson was staunchly opposed to the notion of MPs publicly vetting judicial appointments. “The strength of his opposition was such that he would not have allowed himself to go through such a process to be elevated to the Supreme Court,” Roach, a University of Toronto law professor, told Maclean’s.

Dickson’s view is shared by many other judges, including his successor as chief justice, Antonio Lamer. When Martin first publicly stated his preference for a House committee to review the appointments, Lamer, who retired early in 2000, declared himself “dead against it.” He raised the spectre of American-style partisan wrangling over who gets chosen. Many Canadian legal experts are uneasy about the U.S. Senate hearings that probe the views and character of a president’s picks for the Supreme Court— especially after the pitched partisan battles that surrounded the nominations of Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork. Could that happen in Canada? Roach expects the Alliance will try and make its opposition to “judicial activism” a major policy plank of the new Conservative party. “Imagine if one of the judges on a court of appeal that ruled in favour of gay marriage came before a parliamentary committee,” he said.

But Martin seems determined to make the change. His blueprint for a new approach to governing, released when he was sworn in as prime minister on Dec. 12, promised consultations on “how best to implement prior review of appointments of Supreme Court of Canada judges”—not on whether to go ahead with the reform. Roach points out that Prime Minister Tony Blair has recently embarked on an overhaul of how Britian’s top judges are chosen. “This is part of a worldwide movement toward greater transparency,” Roach said. “It’s not just a matter of going to U.S.-style confirmation hearings.” Just how close Canada gets to that controversial U.S. model remains to be seen. What’s certain is that any system that puts would-be Supreme Court judges in front of inquisitive MPs is bound to change forever the aloof aura that now surrounds the nine men and women who get to wear those red robes.JOHN GEDDS

PENNY-PINCHING

So much for letting the good times roll. After the government’s books were balanced in 1997-98, a sense of relief spread through the federal bureaucracy. The feeling that the purse strings were loosening—after the belt-tightening, deficit-fighting days—reached an apex last February when then-finance minister John Manley announced $25 billion in new spending in the final budget of Jean Chretien’s government. Now, Manley and Chrétien are gone, and a pre-Christmas clampdown by the new regime has sent a chill through Ottawa. Last week, Paul Martin and Finance Minister Ralph Goodale froze the size of the public service, halted construction projects worth billions, and ordered a probing review of all spending.

Yet the message is mixed: the new Prime Minister also wasted no time setting out an ambitious agenda, in everything from health care to Aboriginal affairs, that’s going to require lots of money to implement. Don Drummond, who was a senior official under Martin when he was finance minister and is now Toronto-Dominion Bank’s chief economist, says Martin’s austerity measures and grand plans go together. “It’s not as if we’re in imminent danger of going back into deficit, but the cupboard is bare in terms of funding new initiatives,” Drummond says. “So he’s got to create a pool of internal savings for spending.” The first priority is to hit the government’s target of remaining $2.3 billion in the black for the current fiscal year, of which $2 billion is earmarked for a special payment to the provinces to help cover health-care costs.

The notion that Ottawa’s fiscal margin of error is now so slim is surprising after the hefty surpluses of recent years. Drummond says the culprit is growth in federal program spending that has averaged 6.7 per cent over the past four years. He argues spending increases should have been held to less than half that pace. But Martin’s critics on the left claim the real problem is intentional underestimating of the size of the surplus—and an insistence on proceeding with business tax cuts. NDP Leader Jack Layton is calling on Martin to cancel a scheduled drop in the corporate tax rate to 21 per cent from 23 per cent on Jan. 1,2004. Keeping the higher rate would net Ottawa an extra $1.1 billion next year, according to Finance Department figures. Layton cites the example set by Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty, who halted planned Ontario tax reductions as part of coping with the deficit he inherited on taking office. But Martin shows no sign of following McGuinty’s lead. Instead, the pressure is on for federal mandarins to squeeze old programs hard enough to make room for fresh priorities by the time of the widely expected spring election. J.G.

COOLING OFF

The Economist is as famous for its buttondown sense of humour as it is for its weekly pages of fiscal charts and graphs. But even by those elevated standards, the cover image on North American editions of the magazine’s Sept. 27 issue was striking: a moose wearing cool sunglasses, with the cover line “Canada’s new spirit.”

“A cautious case can be made that Canada is now rather cool,” The Economist’s editorialists opined. Their evidence: “A certain boldness in social matters,” including Jean Chretien’s initiatives to “legalize gay marriage and decriminalize marijuana, both excellent liberal ideas.” The magazine also praised Chrétien for “better protection of the environment” and his “robust” handling of Quebec separatism, which culminated in Chrétien “ramming through the Clarity Act.”

Now Chrétien has retired from government. And his “rather cool” legacy? Almost every element of it faces challenge or delay from the new Paul Martin government.

Better protection of the environment? Martin has been a champion at sending mixed signals regarding the Kyoto accord, which demands that signatory countries cut their emission of gases that tend to heat the atmosphere. He has been quicker to insist on a “plan” for implementing Kyoto than to get to work producing one; many in Alberta’s oil patch take his comments as evidence of weak resolve.

Social boldness? The justice minister who led the charge on gay marriage and pot legalization, Martin Cauchon, is out. His replacement, Irwin Cotier, has impeccable credentials as a human-rights lawyer. But Coder said he wants to “broaden” a Supreme Court reference on gay marriage to ask whether civil unions, short of marriage, would be acceptable. “This is of great concern because it could delay and even derail” same-sex marriage legislation, says Gilles Marchildon of the gay-rights group Egale Canada.

And so much for “robust” federalism: Stéphane Dion, author of the Clarity Act, was dumped from cabinet and replaced by Pierre Pettigrew, who has never liked confrontation with Quebec nationalists and who announced he wants to treat the provinces as “partners, not problems.”

The Economist offered Chrétien no praise for staying out of the Iraq war, but Liberals gathered in November for the party’s leadership convention cheered Chrétien for that decision. Martin has said he would have done the same thing—but his new defence minister, David Pratt, was one of the few Liberals who thought Canada should join the war.

Most of the decisions The Economist praises were taken while Martin was out of government. Now that he’s back in, he’s showing lukewarm enthusiasm for the whole package. And as Martin’s rock star friend Bono could tell him, lukewarm enthusiasm isn’t cool.