Why Paul Martin has to go

Even if the Liberals win, he won’t be honest with himself, or us

PAUL WELLS January 23 2006

Why Paul Martin has to go

Even if the Liberals win, he won’t be honest with himself, or us

PAUL WELLS January 23 2006

Why Paul Martin has to go

Even if the Liberals win, he won’t be honest with himself, or us

PAUL WELLS

A party that has lost its way must guard against false memory. When this campaign began, according to an Ekos poll, fully 64 per cent of Canadians expected the Liberals to win. Only 18 per

cent thought the Conservatives would. The Liberals had nothing but airy contempt for their adversary. “Stephen Harper will never be prime minister,” a senior Liberal party official told me two months after the 2004 election.

This was a hard campaign to blow. So if the Liberals lose, Paul Martin will have to go. If they win he will have to go too.

He proposed a handgun ban that wouldn’t ban handguns. A wait-time guarantee that wouldn’t guarantee wait times. An amendment to a constitutional provision no federal government has ever used. A unilateral amendment the federal government could not deliver unilaterally. He stood in a roomful of children in New Brunswick to announce a daycare commitment that will not begin until 2009—as if he could commit, not the government we are about to elect, but the one after that. He kept, as his Quebec lieutenant, a puffed-up talk-radio host who has rattled this country more profoundly as a federalist than he ever managed as co-founder of the Bloc Québécois.

Old habits die hard, and most of this country has been Liberal territory for a long time. It may even stay Liberal. Martin may tell enough campfire tales about his Conservative opponents to win by a few seats. His home-stretch campaign may turn up enough NDP suckers willing to demonstrate their “sophistication” by abandoning the party that best represents their values and propping up the Liberals. But does anyone expect Martin to find a more coherent story to tell about the Canadian moment? Does anyone expect him to become more honest with himself and us? Does anyone think he has anything new to say, or even anything his staff hasn’t written, focus-grouped and rehearsed into him?

The problem for the Liberals—I mean, beyond the immediate problem of the Jan. 23 returns—is that simply ejecting the leader will not fix what ails. There is an original sin here.

In 2002, Paul Martin was handed the party leadership without being made to ask for it. He opened up a crisis at the centre of the three-time-winning Chrétien government and then did not have the grace or the wit to resign. He made his boss do the hard work, not

for the first time. Then he cheerfully toured the country, insisting he was interested only in barbecues and good chat, while armies of organizers launched an internal coup.

One man, Stéphane Dion, asked the obvious questions: did Paul Martin think his party needed a new leader? And if so, why? His intervention was only a call to elementary morality. But Dion’s questions received

If they insert a new leader now without reflecting first, they’ll perpetuate his state of denial

no answer, and for his impertinence he was left out of Martin’s first cabinet. How many Liberals lifted a finger? How many objected, when Brian Tobin and Allan Rock were bullied out of the leadership race, that Liberals were being denied a chance to consider options?

Paul Martin learned the obvious lessons from this. He learned to live in denial: if he could get the top job by running away from the plain evidence of his actions, he would keep running. He learned nothing was his fault. He learned his friends could do no wrong. He learned to be ruthless toward dissent—or rather, to send hard men to be ruthless on his behalf (see “denial,” above). He learned to believe he was owed high reward without seri-

ous competition. He learned to value platitude over decision.

He really only learned the values his party taught him. In the end, more than nine delegates in 10 endorsed him, making his victory their own. So if they toss him aside now and insert a new leader without pausing to reflect, they are perpetuating his state of denial.

In Ottawa, 2006 is looking more and more like the year of the Frank McKenna coronation. The people who brought you Paul Martin are said to believe McKenna will do as an emergency parachute. Others like the way he has been conveniently distant from the scenes of Liberal misdeeds. The elfin New

Brunswicker went to Washington as an ambassador of Martinite reconciliation with the Bush White House. He wasted no time becoming an ambassador of Martinite annoyance. He speaks French, or it is easy to believe he does if you speak none. He was, at various times, on both sides of the Meech Lake accord. He lobbied for subsidies for New Brunswick until he decided subsidies were a toxin. Remember Stéphane Dion’s first tough letter to Lucien Bouchard in 1997? Dion wrote it because McKenna had consummately bollixed a confrontation with Bouchard at the premiers’ conference in New Brunswick. You didn’t remember that, did you?

I actually like McKenna. But can the party that has ruled Canada for most of its history find only one candidate to lead it? Do its members really think they have nothing to discuss? No bad habits to put behind them? Coronations are for monarchies. Monarchies lead to inbreeding. We have seen what that leads to.M