Martin is finally PM. But have there been any clues about what will define his era, JOHN GEDDES asks.
ONE OF THE few memorable lines to interrupt the swordplay in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King comes when Sir Ian McKellen, as Gandalf, says of the lull before battle, “It’s the deep breath before the plunge.” There was a moment like that in Parliament last week—or as close as federal politics gets. It came in the House of Commons, as MPs gathered before being herded, as tradition demands, to the Senate to hear the Speech from the Throne. The senators, along with hordes of dignitaries, assorted political luminaries and fixers, and the media throng, were all waiting in the patronage chamber. The MPs got a few minutes, though, to mill about, chatting among themselves, the visitor and press galleries above them all but deserted for a change. Conservatives crossed the aisle to share jokes with Liberals. Paul Martin stalwarts leaned over their desks to exchange pleasantries with Jean Chrétien diehards. Everybody took that breath.
Then came the plunge into the Martin era. The MPs marched through the carved stone corridors to what they call the “other place,” where Governor General Adrienne Clarkson read 23 pages worth of promises, principles and platitudes that were supposed to lay out Martin’s agenda—ample fodder for the fresh round of partisan hostilities that will likely come to a head in a spring election. But like the moviegoer struggling to follow the elves, dwarves, ores and humans in the final instalment of the Rings trilogy, the Canadian voter might feel hard-pressed to keep track of what’s going on. The cast includes a new PM, a new Conservative party, and a renewed NDP. And now, in the Throne Speech, there’s an epic script, in which Martin promises to do everything from reforming democracy and strengthening social programs to restoring Canada’s reputation in the world.
It’s smiles and a standing ovation during his first day as boss in the House of Commons
But experience teaches that Throne Speeches offer only hints of what ends up mattering most to a new government. Brian Mulroney’s first mentioned exploring “new approaches to a better and mutually advantageous trading relationship” with the U.S.—the mildest possible allusion to the coming free-trade revolution. Chrétien’s referred to bringing the “debt and deficit under control in a manner that is compatible with putting Canadians back to work”— a bland foreshadowing of the budget-balancing struggle that was in store. It’s impossible to pluck out the stray line that might, with hindsight, look like the start of Martin’s defining moves. But some intriguing possibilities are now on the table:
The health-care PM. Martin calls health care his top priority. Not coincidentally, polls show it’s also the main worry of Canadians. Martin zeroed in on shortening waiting times for diagnosis and treatment. His problem: emergency rooms and MRI clinics aren’t managed by Ottawa. In fact, the whole health system is a provincial jurisdiction. Martin may well decide to funnel a lot more money into that system from on high—as the premiers demand. But the troubles remain mostly the provinces’ to fix, and Martin can’t expect the lion’s share of credit for any solutions. His promise to set up a new Canada Public Health Agency to cope with the next SARS looks like a more obvious federal project. But as for the way hospitals run, no federal leader can easily take the lead on this critical issue.
The democratic-reform PM. Martin vows to make ordinary MPs matter more. But, then, so did Mulroney, whose maiden Throne Speech promised “enhancement of the role of the private member.” And Chrétien, whose first vowed to provide MPs “a greater opportunity to contribute.” The difference is that Martin moved fast, tabling legislation last week to begin liberating backbenchers. “The real embarrassment would be to have members of Parliament playing silent extras in the epic story of Canada,” Martin said. But up to now, his close advisers have not been known for their easygoing way with Liberals who cross them. If they loosen up enough now to let a freewheeling spirit bloom, that could go a long way to giving their boss’s prime ministership its defining quality. But with all parties closing ranks in anticipation of a spring election, real signs of MP emancipation might have to wait.
THE old questions about the real Martin remain. He’s happy to let the pigeonholing game go unresolved.
The progressive PM. Along with health care, a passel of Throne Speech promises aims to position the Liberals slightly to the left. (Jack Layton has been noticed.) There were vows to support early childhood development, the disabled, urban Aboriginals, and low-income families struggling to afford college or university for their children. Martin has earned credibility on this side of his agenda. As finance minister, he introduced landmark child tax breaks for low-income working families. But as prime minister, might he leave his mark by emphasizing programs to help the poor? His own track record suggests he sees the political necessity of balancing such reforms with other measures, at least as generous, tailored for middle-class voters. The tax relief of the Chrétien era, largely designed by Martin, leaves a typical middle-class twoearner family of four, with income of $60,000, paying $1,395 less federal tax for 2004, compared with a low-income single parent of one child earning $25,000 who is $806 better off.
The international PM. No staple of Throne Speeches is more yawn-inducing than the announcement of a policy review. At first glance, Martin’s promised review of international policies is no exception. Still, there are grounds for seeing this prime minister, at this particular moment, as having unusual potential for looking potent on the world stage. Martin inherits from Chrétien a commitment to steadily increase overseas assistance, especially to Africa. If he can combine that with a credible boost in defence spending, foreign-policy critics from both left and right will have a lot less to gripe about. And this turnaround could happen against the backdrop of developments in the U.S. that make Canada look remarkably well-governed to foreign observers—and investors. On the very day that Martin’s Throne Speech committed Canada to expanded social spending within a balanced budget, George W. Bush was tabling a budget proposal that would cut U.S. domestic programs, boost military spending, and leave a US$500-billion deficit.
Of course, events might drive Martin in entirely unforeseeable directions. Or the opposition might succeed in pinning their own labels on him. Or he might just manage to remain hard to sum up in a phrase. After his long tenure in Finance, after the speeches of his leadership campaign, after last week’s debut as PM, the old questions about the real Martin remain. Is he a deficit-obsessed business Liberal, a tax-cutting product of corporate Canada? Or the centre-left politician he claims to be, true heir to Paul Martin Sr.’s social Liberalism? Martin is happy to let the pigeonholing game go unresolved. “We are moving neither right nor left,” he said in his maiden speech as prime minister, “but in the direction Canadians demand—forward.” He’s taking his plunge right up the middle. Í!1]
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