Politics

NEW GUY, OLD PRO

The PM’s putting out a lot of messages as he tries to put scandal behind him

JOHN GEDDES April 26 2004
Politics

NEW GUY, OLD PRO

The PM’s putting out a lot of messages as he tries to put scandal behind him

JOHN GEDDES April 26 2004

NEW GUY, OLD PRO

Politics

The PM’s putting out a lot of messages as he tries to put scandal behind him

JOHN GEDDES

BY ANY NORMAL POLITICAL CALCULATION, a spring election should by now be a remote, receding possibility. Polls turned downright awful on Paul Martin’s government soon after the sponsorship scandal broke in February, and have stayed that way. One veteran Liberal MP talks grimly about the likelihood that they’ll “take a beating” if the Prime Minister sends them out on the campaign trail in May and June. And there’s plenty to keep the controversy from fading in the days ahead, starting this week when Chuck Guité, the elusive bureaucrat who headed the now-notorious sponsorship program, finally testifies before the House committee looking into the affair. Yet far from hitting the mute button on election speculation, Martin loyalists have been turning up the volume—and the Prime Minister’s incessant campaign-style touring provides powerful evidence that he’s keeping the option of a June rendezvous with voters very open.

Exhibit A is his April 16 speech to Toronto’s Canadian and Empire clubs. Far from serving up the usual luncheon boilerplate, Martin delivered his clearest case to date that he might actually mean something by his favourite catchphrase—“transformative change.” His list of five top priorities— health, learning, Aboriginals, cities and towns, and Canada’s role in the world— was hardly surprising. He has frequently mused, usually too vaguely, about concentrating on these areas. What was fresh was the way he sharpened his focus, moving from motherhood expressions of concern to more precise goals. On health, it was reducing waiting times. On Aboriginals, it was turning attention from reserves to Natives in cities. Martin sounded as though he was test-driving potential themes for what’s shaping up to be a brawl of a campaign, whenever it comes.

Senior aides to the Prime Minister are cagey about their deliberations on whether to hold a spring election or wait until fall. But the way they talk about Martin’s recent performance suggests they remain ready to go soon, with June 21 as the most-discussed date. Critics say that would be foolhardy. They point to the fact that even though Martin has spent much of the past two months stumping the country, and announcing plenty of spending, poll results are stuck at minority-government levels—just 35 per cent support according to the latest Ipsos-Reid survey. But close to Martin, the view is that he has laid the groundwork that would let him ratchet up support during a campaign. “Canadians are still angry at the government about the sponsorship issue and are expressing that anger in polls,” said one top official in the Prime Minister’s Office. “But at some point in an electoral contest, they’ll be asking themselves, ‘Who’s best to keep our successes as a country going?’ ”

THOSE pushing for an early election say Canadians will still pick Martin over Stephen Harper to run the country

The theory is that mad as voters might be about the waste and fraud of the sponsorship affair, they’ll still pick Martin over Stephen Harper to actually run the country. That means reminding them about the politician they grew to trust as Jean Chrétien’s finance minister. But there’s a catch: while Martin is eager to lay claim to his successes under Chrétien, he’s also trying to disavow continuity between the old and new regimes. In his Toronto speech, he touted his government’s steps to reform Parliament “even though we have been in office only a short time.” But minutes after that bid to position himself as just getting started, he was reminiscing about the deficit fight that made his reputation. That inconsistency goes unchallenged in front of a lunch crowd; having it both ways will be harder during a televised leaders’ debate in the heat of a campaign. On foreign policy, his signature proposal is establishing a leaders’ club of second-tier economies, a G-20 to broaden Canada’s influence beyond its membership in the G-8 of top industrial nations. Martin was instrumental in creating the G-20 group of finance ministers back when he held that job, so this is another reminder of the positive side of the Chrétien-era track record. And emphasizing multilateral ties could help as Martin prepares for his first visit to Washington late this month, a showcase for Canada’s big bilateral relationship that’s politically problematic, given President George W. Bush’s unpopularity with many Canadians.

Finding a balance between casting himself as the new guy and the old pro is one tactical challenge. Getting voters to look past the scandal to less gripping policy issues is another. Liberal strategists see health as the file most likely to catch voters’ attention. Martin signalled that he’ll be demanding more from the provinces in the coming round of bargaining, offering additional federal money only in return for guarantees that waiting times will be shortened. Health Minister Pierre Pettigrew is reportedly working on what one insider called “a fix for a generation” of the medicare system, which has lurched from one financial crunch to another. The problem, as always for federal politicians, is that the provinces actually run the hospitals. As a result, Ottawa generally ends up talking about broad principles rather than precise services. “Any discussion of health care runs the risk of deteriorating into generalities,” Martin said. Exactly. Turning whatever prescription Pettigrew comes up with into an election winner will depend entirely on avoiding that trap.

If health is the most acute public concern on Martin’s to-do list, Aboriginal policy may be the least top-of-mind worry. His strategists admit tackling Native issues is not a potent vote-winner. Still, they point to Martin’s summit with Aboriginal leaders this week as evidence that he is acting on what he thinks matters, not just on what makes pre-election sense. Education is closer to the hearts of more voters. Here, Martin signalled a new aim—boosting the number of Canadians earning post-graduate degrees, currently much lower than U.S. production ofM.A.s and Ph.D.s.

Selling any of this package depends on Martin’s personal credibility. His closest advisers argue that by refusing to follow the conventional strategy of trying to minimize the sponsorship scandal, he has saved himself from the taint of politics-as-usual. “Canadians were going to come to a new understanding of who he was by how he responded,” said the senior aide. “Was he going to be just another politician, or would he be a person who said to Canadians, ‘I’m like you—you wouldn’t accept this, I don’t accept this’? ” The next major chance to highlight his clean-government credentials will come with the planned appointment as early as this week of a new ethics commissioner, who will answer to Parliament instead of the PM.

Liberals are split on whether it all adds up to enough to run on this spring. “We can’t send volunteers door-to-door,” argues Toronto MP Dennis Mills, “until we can give a substantial response on the sponsorship file.” Others are less cautious. “Numbers are numbers,” says Sarmite Bulte, another Toronto MP, waving off the polls. Bulte, who also chairs the Ontario Liberal caucus, adds: “We’ve got to stop this doom and gloom— I want to go.” So far, despite those numbers, the man who will make the call is acting like he wants to go, too. fil