The politics of Canada are in transition. It sounds trite to say now, after the dramatic revelations detailed in the auditor general’s report in February, but even before her report was tabled in Parliament, big changes were afoot. One can see the qualitative shift in both the presenta- tion of issues by the government, and the analysis of that treatment by journalists. Read any newspaper and compare the issues to those found in the newspapers one or two years ago and you can see the difference. The former prime minis- ter was mired in scandals about Grand-Mère and his involve- ment with the Business Development Bank, repeatedly denying any connection until confronted with the truth, and then, while changing his story and admitting that he had spoken with the president of the bank, continuing to deny everything else. The tactics of Jean Chrétien were accu- rately reflected in his declaration last year that he had ”œabsolute power,” and he acted as though that were true " he could slough off anything.
As we have seen in the last few weeks, Prime Minister Martin has a different approach to matters " he is open and forthright. He promised ”œto get to the bottom” of this sponsorship business and has taken the proper steps to do so. He has also expressed his anger at having taxpayers’ money wasted in the ways described by the auditor gen- eral, money being funnelled off at the same time he had been asking Canadians to tighten their belts. To be clear, this investigation is not about the benefits of the spon- sorship program or the goals of the sponsorship program or the virtues of federalism " it is foursquare about the millions of dollars that were either lost, misappropriated or stolen.
The former PM’s cronies have been chortling in the press that their ”œiron man” would have kept everything quiet, and that the new prime minister is employing the wrong tactics in his approach. Those advisers smugly heark- en back to the old days when such matters where not debat- ed in public " but we all realize that those were the very days when situations such as described in the auditor gen- eral’s report were allowed to fester. The new prime minister has cleaned house not only of people involved in those mat- ters, but also of the tactics and the methods employed in those strategies. It remains to be seen whether Canadians appreciate this quantum leap in accountability in politics. It would seem hardly fair and downright foolish to punish the very person who has taken the bold initiatives to shed light on this episode " it does not stand to reason that the person who is getting to the bottom of this sorry state would be in disfavour with Canadians for doing just that.
But this is not an article about dam- age control, rather it is about emerging issues and the approach to these issues. The way that Prime Minister Martin has dealt with the legacy of scandal that was handed to him is illustrative of how this govern- ment, I believe, plans to deal with mat- ters. The shift is qualitative in the sense that it signals a more open, col- legial and consensual approach to gov- ernment. Sure, it is riskier to debate issues than to shut them down, but only by engaging Canadians will Canada lift itself into an era of ascen- dancy on issues. After all, it is because of our political culture that Canada can mature to a nation that has some- thing to show the world.
After all, it is politics that makes our lives good. It is politics through government that sets the stage for eco- nomic opportunities. It is politics that deals with social issues and provides for peace and order on our streets and in our communities. It is politics that creates issues and structures answers to mark changes in Canada, including parliamentary reform, economic reform, social reform, and the reform of Canada’s place in the world. This rebirth is not only being encouraged, but indeed it is being led by Prime Minister Martin.
The reality is that Jean Chrétien presided over a government whose job it was to settle things down and deal with the economy. During the 1990s Canadians wanted no great shocks and no great surprises and were comfortable with someone who would take care of business. He deserves full marks for balancing the budget and for the fiscal dividend " Martin is the first to say, as he did at last November’s Liberal leadership convention, that as finance minister, he couldn’t have done it without the full support of the prime minister.
Chrétien equally deserves credit, for setting down rules of the road to Quebec independence in the Clarity Act. These are the main points of his legacy, which, however, has been tar- nished by the sponsorship scandal, and by the abuse of power of which Mr. Justice André Robert of Quebec Superior Court has written in a scathing judgment completely vindi- cating the former BDC president. François Beaudoin was not only fired for doing the right thing in recom- mending the recall of a loan to a Chrétien constituent, but even denied the severance and pension due him. Finally he was hounded and harassed by Chrétien’s appointees to the bank to the point where the RCMP even obtained a search warrant for his locker at his golf club.
But that is Chrétien’s mixed legacy, not Martin’s. The new prime minister, having moved swiftly and sincerely to deal with the sponsorship mess, and having disci- plined the head of the BDC for his role in the shameful persecution of Beaudoin, should have the opportuni- ty to get back on a policy track and outline his agenda for, and his vision of, Canada in the 21st century.
This change in national politics is not being brought about solely as a result of a new prime minister whose stated goal is to forge new vistas for Canada and an enlarged role for Canadians in the world, it is also being abetted by the changes in national pol- itics as a result of the opposition par- ties’ regrouping. Compared to the almost somnambulant opposition in the 1990s, the last year has been one of astonishing activity. The Progressive Conservatives went through a reason- ably rigorous leadership campaign, culminating with Peter MacKay as leader. No sooner than MacKay became leader, he entered into discus- sions with the still-rookie leader of the Canadian Alliance, Stephen Harper, to merge their parties, resulting in the playoff for the leadership of the new Conservative Party. The old-fashioned ”œRed” Tories who generally populate the eastern regions of Canada cast about for a leader to try to fend off Harper, ending up with two choices " Tony Clement and Belinda Stronach, and whoever wins that leadership will be head of a party that, while not exactly re-invigorated, will certainly no longer be content to languish in the sedentary position it adopted in the 1990s. The structural repositioning of the Progressive Conservative Party, the Reform Party, and the Canadian Alliance will contribute to a revitalized state of national politics in Canada.
Even Jack Layton’s sanctimonious pronouncements, about how the NDP would change and improve all that is good about Canada, are injecting new life into an NDP that has lain dormant throughout its last two leaders. While there is an ever-present element of wish- ful thinking in NDP social policy, and of strident anti-Americanism in its foreign policy " missile defence is not Star Wars, and will not weaponize space " the NDP is both an authentic voice of the Left and a caution on the Liberals against straying too far to the right.
Given the manifest changes in the underpin- nings of the opposition parties, and taking into account the astonishing changes brought about in the federal government by its refreshing account- ability and new directions, Canadians can look forward to a dynamism and nation-building that has not been seen for quite some time.
We are embarking on a new national experience with Paul Martin at the helm. We are in an age of gov- ernment that, from all first accounts, is responsible. The old government was run by an old-style politician who was passé long before he left office. It is now for historians to deal with him. The measure of Prime Minister Martin will be in his capacity to per- suade Canadians that it is time to move on, and that he has the right ideas, from addressing the democratic deficit, to funding Canada’s cities, to capture the imagination of Canadians.