UP FRONT

DO SOMETHING ALREADY

Liberals hope their convention next month will help get the Martin government going

Mary Janigan February 28 2005
UP FRONT

DO SOMETHING ALREADY

Liberals hope their convention next month will help get the Martin government going

Mary Janigan February 28 2005

DO SOMETHING ALREADY

ON THE ISSUES

Liberals hope their convention next month will help get the Martin government going

Mary Janigan

WHENEVER HE HEARS chatter about an early election, Liberal Senator David Smith impishly recalls the time the Grits asked pioneering U.S. pollster Louis Harris to determine their support. Awed by his sophisticated methods and wearied by the demands of minority government, they were heartened by the news that they would snare a comfortable majority. So, less than 2V2years after the April 1963 election, the Liberals pulled the parliamentary plug. And won another minority. It was a tough lesson: Harris forgot to ask how Canadians would feel about a government that called an election for no good reason. And that wisdom applies today. “The electorate has decided it was appropriate for us to have a minority,” says campaign adviser Smith. “And they think we should make it work.”

So, finally, after floundering through their first 14 months in office, after belatedly realizing their standing in the polls has barely budged since the June 2004 vote, the Paul Martin Liberals are scrambling to “make it work.” It isn’t easy. Theoretically, it should be. Their Conservative opposition is so divided that the new party may actually split into its Tory and Alliance components. And at least one aspect of the Liberals’ own endless internal bickering is abating. In the horrified reaction to his belligerent and unrepentant testimony at the sponsorship inquiry, the number of vehement supporters of Jean Chrétien is dwindling. (One disgusted party stalwart muttered that if the former PM dared to show up at next month’s biennial convention, “he would be lynched.”)

So why does the Martin government seem so unfocused, so incoherent? It says all the right things about everything from cities to child care. Its jargon about a determination to deal with “transformative issues” is impressive. And this week’s budget will spell out ambitious initiatives in virtually every area of policy turf. But despite the constant flurry of announcements and, often, re-announcements, nothing much actually gets done. “The PM is really good at articulating ideas,” says an Ottawa policy insider. “Chrétien was inarticulate—but he had great execution. Martin does not seem to have a practical grasp of how to get from A to B.”

Ideas abound on how to remedy this inertia. Perhaps Martin should appoint an experienced manager as deputy prime minister who does nothing but oversee what various ministers are doing on each issue, nudge them along and give practical guidance on how to make progress. The ideal candidate for this admittedly tiresome job would be Finance Minister Ralph Goodale.

Then there is the dithering within Martin’s own office. It is so bad that a blue-ribbon team of his trusted political buddies, reviving a Second World War idea, offered to become $l-a-year volunteers—and tackle the backlog of decisions. (The PMO gracefully rejected their proposal.)

In frustration, many Liberals are focusing on the party’s March 3-6 Ottawa convention. They hope the policy workshops, debating everything from social to foreign policy, will generate new ideas—and badly needed momentum. And, although the spotlight will inevitably be on the review vote on Martin’s leadership, many also want an end to internal sniping. Such results would be good for all Canadians. A little efficient governing, for a change, could go a long way. ful

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com

Chrétien didn’t help. One party stalwart said that if the former PM showed up at the convention, ‘he would be lynched.’