COLUMN

HEY, WHATEVER IT TAKES

The amazing Martin will embrace anything when his career depends on it

PAUL WELLS May 9 2005
COLUMN

HEY, WHATEVER IT TAKES

The amazing Martin will embrace anything when his career depends on it

PAUL WELLS May 9 2005

HEY, WHATEVER IT TAKES

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

The amazing Martin will embrace anything when his career depends on it

PAUL MARTIN EXHAUSTED his ability to surprise a long time ago, but his ability to amaze remains complete. The Prime Minister has only ever known how to play four notes— flattery, denial, sanctimony and outrage—but he works them into symphonies. He’s a minimalist genius. The Philip Glass of Canadian politics.

So it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that every item in his deathbed deal with Jack Layton was, in the Prime Minister’s account, something he had planned to do anyway. “All we did was accelerate our projects,” he told La Presse. Not surprising, but still kind

of amazing, because it reminds us that everything is something Martin had planned to do someday. Everything on anyone else’s list will be denounced as irresponsible until Martin’s career depends on it, at which point it will turn out to be ... easy.

Senate reform? He was going to get around to it. Bigger army?

A matter of time. Electoral reform? Sure, if you like. Amend the Constitution? Never say never. Anti-gravity? Have your scientists call his scientists. Magic beans? What a coincidence: he was just about to sell the cow.

Nor should it be surprising that his deal with the NDP didn’t exhaust his eagerness to please. The tax cuts Layton wanted him to cancel so he could pay for Layton’s shopping list simply wouldn’t stay cancelled. Soon Martin was offering to vote with the NDP on spending—and then with the Conservatives on tax cuts. All while paying down $2 billion in debt every year. Spending up, tax rates down, savings assured, prudence maintained. In Martin’s telling, this latest crisis ended up expanding the perfection of his budget along every axis. I wonder why the Liberals didn’t write it that way the first time around.

And yet he has a chance of staying alive. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s still kind of amazing. His budget deal with Layton trades the shaky support of 99 Conservative MPs for the very slightly firmer support of 19 New Democrats. This would seem a dumb move. It wouldn’t be Martin’s first. But it may yet be the key to his continued, ungainly survival.

One of the big surprises in the NDP-Liberal deal is how little of it amounts to a direct buyout of an identifiable client group. (Full disclosure: my girlfriend began working for the federal NDP caucus a few months ago. She and I have not discussed the Layton-Martin deal.) The environment, the homeless, and the sick and dying in Africa aren’t big voters in Canadian elections. Students are, and for me the Martin-Layton plan to reduce tuition fees is the biggest dog in the package. Even if the money gets past the rocky shoals of federal-provincial relations—no sure thing—so much of it will brighten the wallets of students who have no trouble affording tuition that little will get to the students who do have trouble. It’s a really inefficient use of scarce dollars.

But the rest of the package? Bright spots. Layton wrung a firmer commitment from Martin for foreign aid than Bono the rock star did. And the Layton-Martin deal’s so-

cial-housing component has fans in surprising places. Anne Golden, the president of the Conference Board of Canada and former head of the Toronto task force on homelessness, said she was encouraged to hear the amended budget will have serious money for affordable housing. “Everything I know about homelessness tells me you can’t fix it without an affordable-housing program,” she said.

I don’t want to get too carried away with the details of the deal. It describes a future that could still change: an early election would derail it, and so would yet another dubious Martin brainstorm.

Three final thoughts.

First, this is Layton’s best opportunity ever to be taken seriously. And he has that chance because he discarded much of his agenda. The NDP leader’s platform last year was an absurd shopping list of programs for every conceivable issue. In the crunch, Layton decided what mattered, which meant deciding what matters less. One presumes it was a novel exercise.

Second, is anyone else noticing how badly Stephen Harper handles a bad day? His response to the Layton-Martin deal was to complain it didn’t have enough bribes for client groups: “Nothing for workers, nothing for forestry workers in that $5 billion, nothing for seniors, nothing for fishermen, nothing to help the Atlantic offshore... nothing for the problems here in this area,” he said in southern Ontario. If Harper doesn’t want to be accused of harbouring a hidden agenda, he should get an agenda.

Finally, I was kind of wistful all week, wishing Paul Martin had ever sold any government policy as energetically as he set about saving his own bacon. He still wants to be prime minister mostly because he wants to be prime minister. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s still kind of amazing. I?]

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