Paul Martin: Prime Minister or kitchen utensil?

Friday, April 15, 2005


Written by Scott Piatkowski

“Paul Martin is the wire brush that will scrub clean this stain on Canadian politics.” - Scott Reid, official spokesperson for Prime Minister Paul Martin.

Once you’re done shaking your head at the shockingly poor quality of imagery being used by the allegedly professional communicators that inhabit Parliament Hill, try to focusing for a moment on the actual content of Scott Reid’s statement. What he is saying is that Paul Martin not only understands Canadian’s outrage over the sponsorship scandal and their desire to change the way federal politics operates, but that Martin actually represents that change. As Reid tried to explain to reporters, Martin is the best person to restore public confidence in government, after the damage done by revelations regarding the sponsorship program.

Not only is that line going to be a tough sell, but it’s one that Martin’s team has tried before. Recall that when the Auditor General’s report was released last February, Martin advisor David Herle proudly outlined the strategic brilliance of Martin's decision to call a public inquiry. “Isn't this the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that you're an agent of change? Isn't this the perfect kind of issue on which to say, ‘Here is something that happened in a previous government – under a different administration – and as soon as it's come out, here's the actions I've taken.’ To me that is an agent of change.”

Martin has never really understood how a man that he reportedly believes to be his intellectual inferior was able to win three consecutive majorities. And, he is infuriated that what he sees as his predecessor’s wrongdoings stopped him from winning the mandate to which he felt entitled (and, indeed, that his supporters had argued was virtually inevitable). Just because he and Jean Chretien didn’t much like each other, he appears to think that he should be immune from any blame for the sponsorship fiasco. He stated last spring that “It is no secret that I did not have an easy relationship with those around the Prime Minister. In short, my advice was not routinely sought on issues related to Quebec... I was certainly not in on the secrets of the gods.”

The funny thing is that Canadian voters who had seemed perpetually willing to forgive Jean Chretien for a catalogue of sins did not seem to have the same tolerance for Paul Martin’s arrogance as they had once had for Chretien’s. When Chretien was in power, he could stand in the House of Commons and argue that although “maybe a few million dollars was stolen”, he thought the greater goal of saving the country was worth it. He invoked the words “national unity” in the same way that George W. Bush repeatedly invokes 9/11 as the justification for everything from the state of the federal treasury to the elimination of civil liberties. And, to a large degree, it worked for him.

Even after he had finally realized his goal to push Chretien out and move into the Prime Minister’s Office, Martin decided to set himself up as the leader of the opposition to his predecessor. No one was more visibly outraged at the rot in government than he was, and no one would work harder to clean it up. The problem with that tactic is that few Canadians seriously believed that someone could serve as Finance Minister for nearly a decade without knowing what was going on, particularly when it was going on in his home province. As the full extent of the scandal is finally becoming apparent, the number of people who believe Martin’s claims of ignorance is about the same as the number of people who attend his staff meetings. Regardless of who is in charge, the term Liberal is becoming synonymous with government corruption, in the same way that the term Conservative did during the Mulroney years (and surely will again if they are ever allowed back into power).

The other thing that has changed is that, where Martin once used the scandal as an excuse to call an early election (so he would have a mandate to clean up government), he now argues that another election must be delayed (so that he has time to clean up government). Last year, Martin himself said, “We’re going to go into an election making it very clear we're dealing with this mess… It is my responsibility as the Prime Minister of Canada to deal with it and I'm going to deal with it.” By contrast, Reid is now begging Stephen Harper to refrain from forcing an election. “Will the leader of the opposition give Canadians a guarantee that he will let Justice Gomery report his findings — that he will not force voters into an election until they have the answers that this prime minister has said that they deserve?”

As Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells noted in his blog last week, “This line would be more effective if voters hadn't been forced into an election last June – before they had the answers that this prime minister had already said they deserved?”


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