The Back Page

TOMORROW, TOMORROW...

For Little Orphan Paul, there’s always a better day ahead. Bet on it.

PAUL WELLS September 20 2004
The Back Page

TOMORROW, TOMORROW...

For Little Orphan Paul, there’s always a better day ahead. Bet on it.

PAUL WELLS September 20 2004

TOMORROW, TOMORROW...

For Little Orphan Paul, there’s always a better day ahead. Bet on it.

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

THE CRUELLEST THING to do to Paul Martin, as he meets with the premiers to talk about health care, would be to act as though his word had any meaning at all. Fortunately for Martin, few Canadians are inclined to try.

What Martin promised before the June 28 election was that he would “fix” health care— not with a stopgap measure that would have all the premiers back in a year or two for more money, but “for a generation.”

And where would he find that fix? At a meeting with the premiers “this summer—

not just for lunch or dinner or even a weekend, but for as long as it takes.”

I'm pretty sure he didn’t misspeak. He made this promise in a Winnipeg speech on March 26 (“five asked to meet with the premiers this summer—not just for lunch or dinner or even a weekend, but for as long as it takes”). He made it again in a Toronto speech on April 16 (“not just for lunch or dinner or over a weekend, but for as long as it takes”). And again when he released his health care plan on May 25 (“A Fix for a Generation”).

And again when he released the Liberals’ campaign Red Book on June 3 (“We are confident that the meeting will agree on the reforms that will fix medicare for a generation”). And in a Liberal party news release on the day before the election (“He will meet with First Ministers this summer for as long as it takes to find a health care fix for a generation”).

That was then. On Sept. 13, Martin will meet the premiers to discuss health care. Nobody’s talking about a fix for a generation anymore. One senior Liberal told me Martin is hoping to show “some progress.”

Some progress would be good. Some progress is always good. Some progress was all anybody could ask for when Jean Chrétien met the premiers in 2003 and offered about $34.8 billion over five years in return for vague promises of modest reform.

But Martin made a great show of dismissing lowly trolls who think “some

progress” is enough. In the same Toronto speech where he promised to fix health care for a generation, he said what’s needed is “transformative change.” What’s that? “To me, it means a fundamental shift in approach and direction, it is not stopgap measures imposed incrementally. We’re finished with the year-to-year scramble for short-term solutions.” Great. At least we know how we’ll measure whether he’s kept his word. If, say, next autumn, governments are still scrambling for short-term solutions, it’ll be hard to claim anything’s been fixed for a generation.

I know. I know it seems picky to parse the words of the Prime Minister of Canada as though they should be expected to mean anything. But in a way, the election was all about the value, if any, of candidates’ words.

In the campaign’s first week, Ontario’s premier, Dalton McGuinty, introduced tax increases even though he’d promised in writ-

ing he’d do no such thing without holding a referendum to ask voters for permission. McGuinty’s tax flip-flop made some voters wonder whether we could believe anything anyone in politics ever says. Martin’s reply to such questions was that his word is worth more than most. “I have built my career in public life on doing what I said I would do,” he said on June 3. And, a few minutes later, “Fundamentally, you know, I have always done what I said we would do.”

All of this is the long way around to explaining why we’ll have another federal election sooner, rather than later. Probably in 2005. And it will come, not because opposition parties force it, but because Paul Martin wants it.

It’s hard to govern. You have to make do with stopgap measures and “some progress.” Costs increase. Commissions of inquiry report. Fired employees sue. Presidents stay frosty. Borders won’t open to cows.

But tomorrow...

The view is so much clearer from the campaign trail. Transformative change is always at hand. Problems will go away—for a generation! History will be made! Everything will be fixed! Tomorrow...

Paul Martin is Little Orphan Annie. In his mind, he’s just a spunky kid who can beat any obstacle. When he rises from the summit table he’ll be sure he’s fixed health care for a generation. And he needn’t worry about the nasty day, a year or so hence, when the premiers start to gripe again. Before that day comes he’ll be on the trail again, promising more transformative change to fix more problems for a generation. There is nothing disingenuous about it, just an innocence so wide-eyed it’s almost blank-eyed.

He only looks like a Daddy Warbucks. But before too many chickens come home to roost, he’ll be back out on the trail, singing his song. The sun will come out. Tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar.

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