The new Liberal leader is lucky. When picked just a few weeks from now, he will stand on the shoulders of the achievements of two excellent leaders. While it would be unsurprising for many to view the 10-year run of Jean Chrétien as remarkable, the shorter reign of Paul Martin, building on his very successful years as finance min- ister, is marked by real progress as well.
In his two years as prime minister, Martin negotiated the first ever health care deal signed by all the provinces and territories; articulated and acted upon his own thesis of fed- eralism; gave cities a place at the national table and the money to do the job; signed deals with the provinces to build a national daycare system; passed legislation making Canada a world leader in recognizing gay and lesbian mar- riage rights; moved to reshape Canada’s foreign policy for the first time in more than a decade; and survived on the knife’s edge of a minority parliament in the face of the country’s biggest scandal in recent history.
Paul Martin pursued many ”” maybe too many ”” policies but they were all bound together by one idea of Canada. And those who want a progressive, caring and prosperous nation would share that idea of Canada ”” and he acted every day to make it come true. He rarely articulated his idea of Canada ”” his thesis of governing ”” but it comes down to this: he believed that Canada could be the best nation in the world and a model for how the world should behave. Canadians often say this and some may believe it but he thought it could be true. His ambition for Canada was built on six principles.
Fiscal and Economic Sanity. First and foremost, federal and provincial governments had to get the economic and fiscal basics right so that over time they could make the right investments and not be hamstrung by debt and deficits. Martin did this as finance minister for Canada (including the signal achievement of getting public pensions on a stable foot- ing) and later as prime minister for the provinces through reforming equaliza- tion and health care funding. The criti- cized offshore energy deals with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland were itera- tions of this principle. Their debt loads were so high that they needed special help. Getting the economic basics right also means ensuring that the rules of trade are clear and respected. He always pressed the United States to respect NAFTA and improve its decision-mak- ing and he would never accept a soft- wood deal that did less than that.
Equality of Opportunity. Once that was accomplished, governments must reinvest in the social underpinnings of economic success by giving everyone a real equality of opportunity. Child care with a real educational component to ensure that our children have the skills to succeed in school and beyond. Stable and reliable health care to ensure no one is left behind. Real action on Aboriginal inequality. An open and effective immigration policy matched with skills training for all to give us a workforce ready for the next economy.
Flexible Federalism. All this was to be achieved in the context of a re-defined federalism that saw the federal govern- ment articulate more of the national and shared goals while allowing the provinces the scope to find out how best to get there locally. This new federalism also meant that the national government should be more relevant to the daily lives of Canadians by going around provinces and interacting directly with cities. He sees cities, not countries, as the forum of competition around the world ”” it is Toronto versus Shanghai and Vancouver with Tokyo, not China against Canada.
Preparing Canadians for a Globalized World. Governments have an obligation to prepare their citizens for the world ahead and that means investing heavi- ly in building a knowledge-based econ- omy and in the elements of the next economy ”” universities, research and development, communications tech- nologies, biotechnology, among others.
Act on Values, Not Just Interests. He believed that the way we act toward each other at home ought to be reflect- ed in how we behaved in the world. As a result, he believed in re-invigorating the Canadian presence in the world. This would be achieved through a new model of intervention that included diplomacy, development and defence, with a beefed-up peacekeeping capabili- ty and an independent voice; and by staying true to your word ”” such as by honouring our commitment on Kyoto, though clearly we were on the wrong side of emissions reductions, and meet- ing our goals within the Kyoto timetable was going to be a significant challenge.
Respect Human Rights. Finally, he believed in continuing the liberal tra- dition of promoting and enhancing human rights ”” here at home and in the world.
Canadians didn’t get to see much of this vision from Martin as prime minister. It was overshadowed by the disgrace of the sponsorship scandal, by the tactics of an opposi- tion who opposed his idea of Canada and weren’t pre- pared to let him try to get it done and finally by a media that had a different story to tell.
For the media’s part ”” and hence for the story most Canadians actually heard ”” pursuing an idea of Canada was a story of policy, and that story is boring. The media had a better one ”” it was the age-old story of the mighty brought down. It was the central story of Paul Martin from the moment he won the leadership and the sponsor- ship scandal provided the means to humble the mighty. This is not to say that the media had any particular ani- mus, but it is a reflection of the reality of journalism now. With the increasing power of conservative voices in the media and the pressure of a 24-hour news cycle driven by entertainment, not information, the media always needs a new story ”” a new frame.
In this kind of story, your ideas don’t matter. Ottawa’s media mandarins judge political leaders not by the practi- cal and moral values of the policy out- comes they pursue but by what they perceive as the tactical acumen and political cunning leaders show. The ideas ”” no matter how right or consistent nor how important ”” aren’t that relevant.
But all of this would have faded away ”” as did much of the similar early criticism of Mulroney and Chrétien ”” if Martin had won a majority in the 2004 election. The real question is whether a minority win was Martin’s fault or did holding on represent a vic- tory against a compelling tide.
For many, their answer rests on Martin’s decision to hold the Gomery Inquiry and to face the Canadian pub- lic and articulate what Canadians felt ”” that what happened was truly a scandal. Martin’s problem, as described by many, was that he should have done what Chrétien and smart tacticians would have done ”” shrug their shoulders and bury the problem. Martin should have stuck with the tried-and-true method.
But the old tried-and-true was wrong. Canadian history shows that in the modern era, new PMs who inherit the party from long-serving prime ministers tend to lose their first (and often only) election ”” as Kim Campbell did in 1993 and John Turner did in 1984, for example. This grim fact drove many of the political choic- es made in the early stages of the Martin government.
The public demand for change had been climbing since the 1997 elec- tion, through the 2000 election, and had reached into the 60 percent range by 2004. That strong desire for change often spells defeat for any incumbent. Martin had to choose between continuity with the old government and its admitted successes ”” but give up the chance to look like change ”” or embrace change, with the risks that entailed.
Initially, Martin chose the latter. It was this thesis that drove him to pre- sent new faces in Cabinet (and drop ones well known under Chrétien); drove, in part, the decision to launch the sponsorship inquiry as opposed to burying the scandal; and drove the need for stopping some of the leftover programs from the previous adminis- tration. Change meant presenting an acceptable face to the West as well so an early election was delayed to allow for redistribution to grant extra seats to the West.
In this desire for change was laid the seeds of the eventual downfall of the government. Many MPs elected without much difficulty against a divided right and a weak left were loath to take on the risk of change. They saw no need for it, wrongly, as it would force them to downplay some things they had run on for the last 10 years. The MP view, muttered privately at first and more broadly later, was based on a false calculus. Jack Layton’s New Democrats ”” although untested ”” were already starting to eat away at the left flank of Liberal support. For most of the 1990s, the NDP had been in single-digit terri- tory. Early Layton numbers were in the mid-teens. Equally, the right was now united and that alone would reduce the seat count in Ontario by 20 or more ”” on the 2000 election results alone, bringing the numbers perilously close to a minority.
And the demand for change was given a huge burst of new fuel by the sponsorship scandal. Within two days of the release of Sheila Fraser’s full report in February of 2004, Liberal sup- port plummeted 17 points ”” the sin- gle most precipitous decline in support for any party in Canadian history. Fast, deep action was required. However, change in this case meant being part of the solution ”” not saying there was no problem because Canadians clearly didn’t believe that. However, that meant, on top of general policy changes, also proposing changes that went at the core of some of what the party under the previous prime minis- ter ”” or more accurately, people in his party machine ”” had done.
But for Martin, this was a moral choice, not a tactical one. He couldn’t fathom that people would abuse the public purse and he was offended by it. He believed he had an obligation to root out the problem ”” and an obli- gation to trade some of his own popu- larity to shore up the faith of Canadians in the integrity of the political system. For him, that meant getting to the truth.
However, as Martin tried to mobi- lize public opinion to his favour in his struggle to find his prime min- isterial footing, he found few allies. Many who had looked to Martin for leadership when he was wrestling the deficit to the ground left him when he became prime minister. The prize of sharing the surplus Martin himself created was too great to let Martin decide how to deal with it. As a result, Martin was robbed of allies in his bid to continue the path he started as finance minister.
To the provinces, there was no incentive to play ball with Martin ”” they saw a chance to use political leverage to get their hands on the fed- eral surplus and a bizarre separatist argument became the rallying cry of every province ”” there was a ”œfiscal imbalance” and it had to be fixed.
The opposition ”” especially after the 2004 election ”” were not afraid of an election and refused to do anything in furtherance of a public good. An elec- tion while sponsorship was still alive was their best hope. Interest groups were playing the usual game of pressuring for money and were critical of anything that was less than everything they wanted.
And for the all-important ”œframe” of how a government is perceived, Martin’s policies weren’t different enough. The story of the battle to get the fiscal house in order was an old one and people were looking for a new act. Martin’s prescriptions for that money were sensible and right ”” but dull.
For their part, some in the bureau- cracy decided to stand back. They saw Martin’s push for change as a threat. The early promise to continue to cut spend- ing left many public servants concerned that their ox was to be gored. Others, unused to operating in a minority parlia- ment, were critical of any decision-mak- ing process that wasn’t controlled in the normal way ”” which meant a meas- ured, bureaucratic approach. These voic- es found their way into print.
The 2004 election saw all these factors play out. Because of the attempt to reach out to the West by waiting for redistribution, the election was called after Sheila Fraser’s damn- ing report. The right was united ”” giv- ing it Ontario seats it could not win before. The NDP was taking support from the left. The Bloc was rejuvenat- ed in Quebec.
Some armchair quarterbacks have suggested that Liberals didn’t win because the campaign didn’t sell the positive message of what Chrétien and Martin with him had done. What most people forget is that Paul Martin repeatedly tried pos- itive speeches about the economy and, unlike the Conservatives’, his cam- paign actually ran positive advertising. It just didn’t work. The media didn’t want to cover a story about the successes of Paul Martin and Canadians weren’t much interested either. During the 2006 elec- tion, for example, the Liberal campaign ran a positive ad for an entire week ”” just as the Conservatives were running a final flurry of negative ads. Liberal support dropped through the month of January and started to return only in the final week when the Liberals went on the attack against Harper’s failings.
A majority was never in the cards in 2004.
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But in the face of these pressures Martin got things done. Although it didn’t get much attention, Martin’s thesis of Liberalism was outlined in that campaign platform. It was the same one he had articulated in his leadership campaign, loftily titled ”œThe Politics of Achievement.” Martin managed to keep most of those promises in the short 18 months before his next and final joust with the electorate.
Real and substantive action, and not the superficial commitments that the current prime minister claims, were accomplished: a national health care accord with benchmarks and funding at the Romanowâˆ’recommended levels ”” done. A national child care program ”” signed. A new deal for cities ”” done and deliv- ered. Some 5,000 extra peacekeeping troops and new matériel for the armed forces ”” under way. A long-term solution to the Aboriginal crisis in Canada ”” the historic Kelowna Accord was completed just before the 2006 election.
So why doesn’t the view of the Martin government reflect these suc- cesses?
First and foremost, the overwhelm- ing coverage of the Gomery Inquiry buried everything else. Canadians have only so much time and interest in politics and this issue more than any other dominated the headlines and the temper and tone of the House and all media coverage. In the noise of scandal, news of actual events and real achievements gets short shrift.
Second, while many profess to hate autocratic leadership, they clearly didn’t like Martin’s style of listening before deciding either. Martin liked to know the pitfalls before he acted so he consulted widely. That meant his thinking process was often apparent to his own caucus and, in a BlackBerry world, it became known to everyone. Other leaders, perhaps understanding the dynamic better, never let anyone know what they thought and would never test their ideas in a public forum. A Canadian stringer for The Economist characterized Martin’s process of thinking as ”œdithering,” and the label stuck. It was a silly jab at a man who was actually trying to do what many commentators opine our politicians should do ”” listen.
Third, Martin’s thesis of federal- ism left some traditional allies cold. His view of how the federation should work ”” that the federal government articulated and led national goals but left provinces to determine their own path to that shared goal ”” ”œasymmet- rical federalism” ”” was both contro- versial and rarely defended. Some traditional Liberals and left-leaning columnists were offended. Martin, in part because his own catholic tastes in policy meant that he viewed issues as solved when he had figured them out, but also because this change ran into fervent internal dissent in caucus, did- n’t spend much time defending it.
Fourth, the very public way deci- sions get made in a minority govern- ment flavoured how people viewed his administration, used as they were to clear stands taken and no quarter given. Decision-making in democra- cies is messy: full of compromises and glasses half full but in majority parliaments, that process is largely conduct- ed out of the public view. As a result, illustrating the leadership characteris- tics of a prime minister is easier ”” you just need to worry about the policy, not the process (except rarely). In minority parliaments, the press and public get to see it all. MPs have more power and they talk about it more.
Government plans have to be negoti- ated through the House so govern- ment announcements are often first drafts of the eventual policy. Because of that, the government holds ideas or proposals back so that they can be used later to seal a deal.
A perfect illustration of messy democracy used in service of Martin’s idea of Canada is the deal with the NDP. Investments in things that Paul Martin cared about ”” education and students, foreign aid, housing, Aboriginal issues and transit ”” were made to help cement a deal that kept the government alive.
Unlike the current House of Commons, where the Conservative government has one party it can rely upon to give it a majority, the NDP and Liberal vote combined was not enough. That being said, the political benefit of putting the Conservatives and the Bloc together as joint venture partners in defeating a legitimate gov- ernment made a deal with the NDP a sensible thing to do. In fact, the deal proved to be a popular move.
Another factor that contributed to the mixed reviews of Martin’s government was the presence of an unforgiving and vitriolic opposition. Unlike the one now facing Stephen Harper, this kind of less than loyal opposition made for messy fights try- ing to keep the government alive. This also helped negatively frame the gov- ernment as more interested in politics than policy.
Were the efforts at survival by the government inappropriate or excep- tional? No. For time immemorial, chiefs of staff to prime ministers have had conversations with members of other parties ”” it is part of the job. At that time, there were a number of Conservative MPs ”” who didn’t believe they could win or that Stephen Harper had the right stuff ”” who were making noises to various Liberals about wanting to retire or about looking for appointments or sinecures. Enough had made advances to members of the Liberal government that it felt like a crisis in confidence inside the Conservative caucus about their future under Harper. In this context, David Peterson’s phone call to me saying that Belinda Stronach was deeply disillusioned with her leader and was looking to change parties was surprising but not impossible.
Finally, layered on top of this was the unrelenting desire of all the oppo- sition parties to defeat the government at the first opportunity: Gomery cov- erage; the public accounts inquiry; a vitriolic question period; internal Liberal dissent layered on a perceived civil war; the almost daily sense of cri- sis. Canadians did become sick of it all. By the time of the vote that sustained the government in May 2005, Canadians (except in Quebec) had concluded that much of this was the fault of Stephen Harper, whose stri- dent belief in his own virtues blinds him to the fact of legitimate, albeit contrary, views ”” but it was a close- run thing at that point. Unfortunately, by the time of the January 2006 elec- tion, it all stuck to Martin.
In Quebec, the effect on the Liberal Party, however, was devastat- ing. There, the visceral response to the way sponsorship was perceived (Quebecers were made to look like fools by Liberals) was combined with the first in-depth exposure of Quebecers to Martin. Quebecers did not believe that Martin was not involved and still don’t ”” even after Justice Gomery cleared him. More to the point, Quebecers no longer saw Martin as one of their own ”” he was a bilingual anglophone.
Through all the noise, however, Paul Martin sought and achieved real progress in key areas. In health care, the 2004 accord is working. All federal parties have adopted it as their policy.
Wait times are coming down. Provinces are moving to provide health care according to those principles. The incessant and annual ritual demands for more health money from the feder- al government are gone. Health care guarantees ”” the logical next step ”” were part of Martin’s plan for the next phase. However, he and his health minister, Ujjal Dosanjh, held off mak- ing the commitment (allowing the Tories to steal the idea) in order to ensure that all the provinces commit- ted to the benchmark process before more burdens were added.
This deal reflects Paul Martin’s approach. He believed that getting a deal wasn’t good enough ”” that real reform was required. The health accord therefore was built on two key drivers of change ”” two Trojan horses sent into the provincial sphere ”” wait times and the cost escalator. Wait times, because they would provide a visible and measurable indicator of system performance. All the provinces would have to sign on and none could resist the public pressure to have simi- lar wait times across the country. The cost escalator was done in part to satis- fy the criteria outlined by Roy Romanow but more importantly to act as an incentive to provinces on cost control. If they could successfully keep their cost growth in check, the guaran- teed growth in federal transfers for health would give them some future budget room.
In the cities agenda, the New Deal has made the federal govern- ment relevant to the daily lives of many Canadians from whom it had become distant. Even the Conservatives are reluctant to back away from the commitments that Martin made. Too much of the eco- nomic future of this country rests in the homes and busi- nesses of our cities for the fed- eral government to walk away.
On the economy, Martin’s signature achievement, the Conservative government is basking in the reflected glory while walking away, so far, from the investments that will keep the economic engine primed. The recent paydown of more than $13 billion in debt was large- ly derived from the last 10 months of Martin’s government. However, on pro- ductivity, on research and development, on investing in skills, the Harper govern- ment has been woefully silent. More may come, as this area is very much an interest of Kevin Lynch, the current clerk of the Privy Council, but to date the focus on short-term politics has left the policy cupboard bare. In fairness, per- haps that, too, is partly a function of a minority House.
On the international front, the Harper government has moved deeply into the American orbit but the Martin view seems to be holding sway among Canadians. Here, Martin ”” while sharing the notion of an inde- pendent voice for Canada that runs through his predecessors Trudeau and Chrétien ”” believed that Canada needed to concentrate its efforts and make a difference. He believed that Canada’s role in the world had to reflect the values it ran itself by as a country ”” tolerant, peaceful, respectful of others, standing with its friends but focused on building states that worked and never on fighting a war that imposed a point of view or a way of life. His government’s systematic review of the foreign and defence pol- icy of Canada was focused on this end. Canada had to have the resources to make a difference ”” which meant a reinvestment in the military, yes, but in a military that was building peace, not making war.
Canada’s commitment in Afghanistan is a perfect example. Martin believed Canada had to do our part as we had given our word to our allies ”” but even here he was of the view that we ought to take a geo- graphical area and use all our assets to make a difference in the lives of Afghans. Canada committed to build- ing the peace, but also to shoring up a democratic state, investing in schools and health care and in doing so mak- ing a distinctive contribution. Mission creep in Afghanistan is putting this Canadian idea at risk.
Fundamentally, Martin believed that Canada could best play its role in places like Haiti and Darfur. In each case, he repeatedly asked the American administration for support for a Canadian-led effort to build stable and peaceful societies. He believed that Canada’s independent reputation and its creative idea of sending not just troops but aid workers and doctors and judges and diplomats, too, could really matter in those countries.
In the Liberal leadership, I expect the Martin thesis to eventually win out. The cleavage between Michael Ignatieff in particular and the others reflects a split around the Martin idea of how Canada is engaged in the world. To Ignatieff’s credit, he stands firm in his view but there is a core value at stake and one that is part of what distinguishes us from the Harper-led Conservatives: Canada’s interventions in the world should reflect what we believe and do domes- tically. The dispute is not about the sad fact that our troops are dying in Afghanistan. We all knew that was possible. But there is a key difference about the ends we are pursuing there and our role in the world.
Martin at the time sought and received the commitment from the military that our role in Afghanistan would not rob us of the ability to play a role in Haiti or Darfur or even the Middle East. The current government has walked away from that commit- ment ”” and it is a sad day for Canada in the world.
Looking ahead, parts of the Martin agenda are clearly at risk. The current prime minister seems intent on undoing everything Liberals ever did””going so far as to add the Orwellian touch of erasing every men- tion of the policies and programs of the prior regime from government Web sites. But the Canada we know is at stake. Sadly, the currency of politi- cal tactics seems worth more than the hard coin of policies that enhance productivity and create and share prosperity. In areas that are crucial to Canada’s success, the current govern- ment seems at sea. In education and research and development, there has been no action so far. On climate change, they are walking away from our word and from real action. In pur- suit of ideological purity but also in order to denude the federal govern- ment of the power to act in the national interest, the Harper govern- ment is or will be giving away billions to the provinces. In turn, they will hand over federal powers, too. In for- eign affairs, the Harper administration is singing harmony to an American song of the world.
For the Liberal Party, the challenge is clear. There is hope because the con- sensus among the leadership candi- dates ”” with few exceptions ”” is deep. The Martin view is winning out as the race progresses ”” an endorsement of the Kelowna Accord, a celebration of the health care deal, a shared sense of loss over the national daycare system. And while the economy has not been very present in the leadership debates, that is a reflection of the hegemony of the new consensus. Liberals now all accept balanced budgets and policies that encourage both wealth creation and wealth distribution as bedrocks of the party’s approach.
In the result, while it is still much too early to judge a legacy, the policy suc- cesses of Paul Martin ”” as finance minis- ter and prime minister ”” are real and the messy way in which democracy was sometimes conducted during his govern- ment shouldn’t cloud that judgment.