Politics

GETTING PERSONAL

Martin is under fire for not just what he does, but who he is, writes JOHN GEDDES

January 26 2004
Politics

GETTING PERSONAL

Martin is under fire for not just what he does, but who he is, writes JOHN GEDDES

January 26 2004

GETTING PERSONAL

Martin is under fire for not just what he does, but who he is, writes JOHN GEDDES

Politics

PRIME MINISTER Paul Martin is said to be volatile behind closed doors. His loyalists proudly attest to having been scorched, boasting that he ignites only in the company of those who have earned his trust or affection. But in public, he usually keeps his cool—with one notable recent exception: he heats up, his complexion visibly registering rising anger, when Jack Layton’s name gets mentioned. The NDP leader has gotten under Martin’s skin by portraying him as a politician of privilege, guilty of looking out for the business interests of his rich pals. In a year-end interview with Maclean’s, a question about Layton was the only one that pulled Martin out of a relaxed slouch. Suddenly upright in his chair, the Prime Minister punctuated his rebuttal by thrusting his index finger down onto a tabletop, as if searching for the button that would launch a surgical strike on New Democratic Party headquarters.

Martin’s instinctive response was not to defend his policies, but to claim the mantle of a man of the people. He spoke of how his father, though a powerful Liberal politician, came from a poor family. How he himself made his fortune in business, rather than inheriting it. And, especially, how proud he is of his bond with voters in his Montreal riding, LaSalle-Émard. “Those people elected me every single election since 1988,” Martin said. “And they elected me because they know I am one of them.” Now, no matter how much folks in south Montreal like him, that’s quite a claim. The average family income in his electoral district was just under $53,000 at the time of the 2001 census, about $13,000 below the national average. Martin is, as they know, a millionaire many times over. But does that gulf between his experience and the daily reality of most Canadians’ lives matter? The fact that Layton seems to be hitting a very tender nerve suggests that, at least in partisan give-and-take, it does. And, last week, the temptation to take aim at Martin’s wealth and upbringing leaped across ideological lines: Stephen Harper, in

declaring his bid for the new Conservative party’s leadership, took a page from Layton’s Martin-bashing playbook. “I was not born into a family with a seat at the cabinet table,” Harper declared. “I grew up playing on the streets of Toronto, not playing in the corridors of power. When I left home for Alberta, I had to get a job; I wasn’t on loan to the corporate elite. I’ll never be able to give my kids a billion-dollar company, but Laureen and I are saving for their education. And I have actually cooked them Kraft Dinner—I like to add wieners.”

LAYTON has gotten under the Prime Minister’s skin by portraying him as a politician of privilege looking out for his rich pals

Crammed into those five sentences is a compendium of snide allusions to the Prime Minister’s well-known biography. Martin might present his story this way: son of a socially progressive Liberal icon, a self-made business success, with an average guy’s taste for processed comfort food. Harper spins the same facts like this: silver-spoon insider, made his money on those connections, and as a result can’t relate to ordinary Canadians’ financial concerns. Also, Harper cedes ground to no man in his regard for salty, starchy packaged pasta.

Putting such a personal edge on politics can be off-putting, but it sure generates buzz. Layton has attracted more attention than any NDP leader of recent vintage with this line of attack. His much-discussed Web site,flyourflag.ca, is built around attacking Martin for registering vessels in his shipping empire under foreign “flags of convenience.” That’s standard shipping industry practice, but here’s how Layton’s site presents it: “Yup, while Paul Martin was finance minister, he broke his promise and forced Canadians to pay the GST and raised the gas tax. But while he was a corporate bigwig, he hoisted other countries’ flags on his ships and got out of paying Canadian taxes.”

There’s a strong echo in all this of Howard Dean’s insurgent candidacy for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination. His surprising dash to the front of the pack was kick-started by his gutsy anti-Iraq war stance, but is sustained by assaults on George W. Bush

as a pillar of crony capitalism. It’s not hard to see how Bush and Martin might be similarly vulnerable to this sort of assault. Both are sons of powerful politicians who made big money in business before taking the electoral plunge themselves. That’s a crude parallel, but us-versus-them populism is not built on subtlety. It can rise above crudity, though, when a credible link is made between the circles a politician moves in and the policies he gravitates toward. Dean finds that link, among other places, in Bush’s tax cuts for the well-off. Layton makes much of Martin pushing ahead with a business tax reduction this year despite a federal spending crunch.

Up to now, Dean’s rousing example has been an enticing one for Canadian opposition strategists. His limitations, though, may prove to be cautionary. Critics contend that he has galvanized a noisy minority without showing how he might broaden his appeal. Inside the Democratic primary process, his hard-hitting rhetoric is potent. Out in the wider world of a presidential election, worried mainstream Democrats fear Bush will crush him. Canadian pollster Conrad Winn, president of Compas Inc., makes this cross-border comparison: “Like Dean, Layton has his greatest influence on left-wing activists, and like Dean, he won’t have a great influence on the wider electorate.”

Maybe that doesn’t matter much to Layton. If Dean gets the nomination liter all, he will have to actuali} defeat Bush— a U.S. presidential election is a winner-take-all affair. But nobody expects Layton to better Martin—just electing more than the NDP’s paltry 14 MPs now sitting in the House would be victory enough. That more modest objective demands left-ofcentre base-building, not competing for middle-of-the-road votes. “Layton has realized there is no room at the centre for the NDP,” says Dalhousie University history professor Todd McCallum, an expert on left-right splits in Canadian politics. “He’s not appealing to the average Canadian as much as he’s rallying his own troops.”

Harper, too, might be pitching his anti-Martin message to shore up core support—that old Reform party anti-establishment vote. Like Layton, and unlike Dean, he doesn’t need to be the country’s most popular leader just yet, only to win a leadership race, and then enough seats to make the new Conservatives respectable.

Looked at this way, the fierce tone Dean has injected into the U.S. political debate might be expected to ease as next fall’s presidential vote approaches, no matter who ends up as the Democratic nominee. In Canada, though, the edge on the attacks that Layton and now Harper have unleashed from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum might only sharpen in the run-up to the expected spring election. In which case, when Parliament resumes sitting next month, watch for Martin to get plenty of practice at trying to hold his famous temper in check.