Q&A

MR. CENTR E-LEFT

Despite his crackdown on spending, the PM sees himself as a liberal’s Liberal

PAUL MARTIN December 29 2003
Q&A

MR. CENTR E-LEFT

Despite his crackdown on spending, the PM sees himself as a liberal’s Liberal

PAUL MARTIN December 29 2003

MR. CENTR E-LEFT

Q&A

Despite his crackdown on spending, the PM sees himself as a liberal’s Liberal

PAUL MARTIN

WHEN PAUL MARTIN sat down with Maclean’s Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith and Ottawa Bureau Chief John Geddes five days after his Dec. 12 swearing-in ceremony as prime minister, he appeared confident of achieving the set of goals he has set for himself—and equally sure he will enjoy doing so. During his first print interview since taking office, Canada’s 21st prime minister spoke candidly about his feelings and goals. Excerpts:

Have you noticed any change in the way people treat you since you got this job?

My staff comes in and their first words are, “Hello, Paul.” Then they correct themselves and say, “Prime Minister.” Then they can’t figure out which, and the third thing they say is usually unprintable.

How much did you think about your late father on the day of your swearing in?

When I was asked that question at a press conference and had difficulty answering, I was very surprised. My dad’s been dead for 10 years. It’s not the first time I’ve talked about him, and I’ve never had that problem. So it was clear that he was much more prominent in my mind than I actually realized.

You’ve taken on direct responsibility for issues such as cities, Aboriginal affairs, U.S. relations. So how will you keep the big picture in mind?

It is not difficult to keep multiple balls in the air. Nor to make rapid-fire decisions. I’m surrounded by very good people. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, you come into this with very strong convictions and a context: this is how I see the world, this is how I see the country, this is how I see the priorities, and this is what I want to do, short, medium and long term. The decisions flow almost automatically. The difficult part is the communications. In public life, you’ve got to bring people with you.

How do you square the major role you have taken on personally with your pledge to give ordinary MPs more to do?

There are a wide range of issues that go through a multitude of departments. Ultimately, the only way those cross-cutting issues get taken care of is if the prime minister steps right in. It is important that the public service and government see that the prime minister says, “This has to be taken care of.” Parliament has to play an important role. If you’re constantly making issues on a reactive basis, then it’s easy for government to make the decision. But if you’re trying to get ahead of the curve, then you need the debate to take place. My belief—and this is the gamble that parliamentary reform is all about—is that MPs, including the opposition, will be responsible when they’re asked to be responsible.

How do you expect MPs to adjust to a more freewheeling House?

Parliamentarians understand this. Journalists, in this town, may have some difficulty. The first time that a huge debate breaks out, and the media says, “Oh my God, the government is losing control,” let me tell you, that’s when the government will be in control, because that’s what we want to have happen.

You’ve been portrayed by NDP Leader Jack Layton as a rich man out of touch with the concerns of Canadians less well off.

Jack Layton’s problem is that he can’t deal with policies, so he has to deal with personal attacks. If you look at the great days of the New Democratic Party—Tommy Douglas, David Lewis—you were dealing with people who had a strong set of convictions and they expressed those convictions.

My father was a politician; he had no money, he came from a very poor family. My mother’s family were farming people. I was lucky in life, but I made that, I didn’t inherit it. My riding is a microcosm of Canada. Those people elected me in every election since 1988, and they elected me because they know I am one of them.

Is your biggest opposition from the right or the left?

I regard myself as a centre-left Liberal. Not everybody would necessarily share that view, but that’s how I regard myself. Therefore, I’m more sensitive, I think, to arguments from the left. I don’t think they are being very well put by the NDP right now. And there are no arguments these days coming from the right.

What kind of hours are you working now?

I probably start about 7:30 in the morning. I usually get up about an hour earlier than that, and I go to bed quite late. But I’ve always done that.

Much different than the pace at finance?

No, not a bit.

About two months into this job, your predecessor said his biggest surprise in the job was that it wasn’t as hard as he expected it to be. How do you feel ?

It’s been pretty well what I expected. You have to know what it is you want to do, and have that very clear in your mind. And you have to know where you are going to leave off and somebody else is going to pick up. For example, as prime minister, I have no intention of being finance minister. I intend to support the finance minister.

You’ve moved quickly to freeze the size of the public service and review all spending. Do you foresee any circumstance in which your government would eventually have to run a deficit?

Obviously, if we found ourselves in a deep depression. I’m not an ideologue. Essentially, though, the confidence in the country that has resulted from having defeated the deficit is one of the reasons why we’ve created more jobs than any major country. It’s one of the reasons why, despite SARS, despite everything else, there is huge confidence in the Canadian economy. The feeling in the nation that we’re not going back into deficit is incredibly important.

You have a very good relationship with Jean Charest of Quebec. Is there any possibility of reopening constitutional talks?

No.

You’re a practising member of the Roman Catholic Church. How much will your personal beliefs impact whatever outcome we’ll see on the gay marriage issue?

I have a value system that is certainly influenced by my religion, but I will approach this as a legislator. I certainly believe in the separation of church and state.

Our Mac/ean’s year-end poll shows that Canadians are not very worried about Canada-U.S. relations. How important to you is warming up relations with Washington?

When I think of softwood lumber, when I think of mad cow disease, I believe that having a strong relationship with the United States is important. But we are an independent country. The Canadian prime minister speaks for Canada’s interests, first and only. I don’t think you buy friendship by giving in. The degree to which we are seen dealing with problems beyond North America will go a long way to making sure the Americans respect us and know exactly where we’re coming from.

You have promised that judges being considered for appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada will first be publicly reviewed. Some judges don’t like that.

As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, there has to be a review. Now, whether Parliament should conduct reviews itself, that’s an issue. Parliament could delegate this to another panel. I intend to seek advice. We’re not going do this in a way that potential nominees are subjected to the political viciousness we see in the United States.

Has there been a personal celebratory moment since you were sworn in as prime minister?

I have a tendency when I’m thinking about something to lean back and put my feet on my desk. One day on the weekend after I was sworn in, I went into the prime minister’s office on Parliament Hill, and sat back and without thinking I put my feet up on my desk. All of a sudden, I thought, “this is the moment.” But before I had 30 seconds to savour it, the phone rang. I had to pick it up and it was the latest crisis to be resolved and the bubble burst.

There’s been criticism of the way you handled naming your cabinet, that you didn’t inform some ministers they were losing their jobs.

I phoned every single person. And I told every single person that it was going to be tough. Maybe I wasn’t explicit in some calls, but I did it a week to 10 days earlier. If the message didn’t come through as clearly as it should have, I accept full responsibility.

You’re described as technology-phobia Are you using a Blackberry yet?

Yes, I do use a Blackberry. The difference between me and people around me is I use the Blackberry when I’m alone. They use the Blackberry instead of talking to people.

Has Mrs. Martin decided what she would like to do as wife of the prime minister?

She’s been active all her life in charities. Whether she’s going to pick one in particular now, I don’t know. Sheila has no intention of playing a public role. She’ll be there with me. It’s not going to change our family life at all. I have been lucky in terms of my family and that is 100 per cent due to her.

Do you have a legacy ambition?

I know what I’d like to have happen. We have a very high quality of life because we have one of the most open economies in the world. You can’t be 30 million people and do as well as we do unless your economy is open and unless, essentially, you’re taking advantage of every uptick of the global economy. So there’s no doubt in my mind where we’re going to be a decade from now. If a decade from now, we’re leading the pack, which I think we will be, then that will be, as far as I’m concerned, a job well done.

And will you be sitting in office to celebrate that a decade from now?

Not a bad target.

To read more of our interview with Paul Martin, visit www.macleans.ca/topstories