Martin's Political Vision?

Mere minutes after an aide has struggled to shed light on the Paul MARTIN vision to baffled reporters, the man himself takes up the challenge in Leamington, Ont. - near where he grew up in Windsor.

Martin's Political Vision?

Mere minutes after an aide has struggled to shed light on the Paul MARTIN vision to baffled reporters, the man himself takes up the challenge in Leamington, Ont. - near where he grew up in Windsor. During a mid-September campaign swing that has included stops in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Toronto and southwestern Ontario, Martin has listened to local concerns, fielded blue-sky entreaties for more government funding, pressed the flesh with hundreds of admiring LIBERALS, and offered his views on everything from parliamentary reform to the root causes of terrorism. But at no time during the five-day-long trip has the former finance minister attempted to make a compelling case as to why Canadians should await with anxious anticipation the day he assumes the highest political office in the land.

Of course, not every politician requires an overarching philosophy to win. Pierre TRUDEAU had one - building a united and just society. Brian MULRONEY held up the dream of national reconciliation, but only discovered his lasting legacy - free trade - once ensconced in office. Jean CHRÉTIEN won three majority governments, it seems, mostly by demonstrating he was not Brian Mulroney. And Martin could likely coast to the leadership next fall solely on the fact that he has built up an apparently unassailable lead over his would-be rivals.

But standing before about 250 Liberals at the Leamington Dock Restaurant, a converted warehouse by Lake Erie, Martin gives it his best shot. It goes something like this: Canada is entering a new age of globalization, unavoidably handcuffed to the world's greatest political and economic power. It can struggle against the tide of history at the cost of its prosperity, or passively be swept along at the cost of its sovereignty. Or it can embrace the new world order and flourish. "There is a great debate in the world about the sovereignty of nations, about how in the shadow of the United States, other nations can find their niche," Martin says. "Well, I can tell you that we can find ours by being the most successful nation in the world, by being a place where the best and the brightest will want to come. There is no country that has the capacity to do what we can do, provided we have the guts and the imagination to make the right decisions and to go ahead."

The message rivets his listeners. The aide turns to a reporter and smiles as if to say, "How's that for a vision?"

The unspoken implication, of course, is that Martin, who apprenticed for the job as Chrétien's right-hand man for nine years, is unquestionably best suited to lead Canada through the period of peril and possibility ahead. In truth, few other potential prime ministers, from any party, can match Martin's pedigree. He grew up living and breathing politics at the knee of his father, Paul MARTIN Sr., who served under three Liberal prime ministers. He learned the cut-and-thrust of business from old family friend Maurice Strong, then executive vice-president of Montreal's Power Corp., who convinced the young lawyer to abandon his fanciful dream of going to Africa to do good, and take a more prosaic job at his company. There, Martin flourished and became a millionaire many times over by taking the biggest gamble of his life - a leveraged buyout of Canada Steamship Lines in 1981 when interest rates were at double-digits. In Finance, he tackled the national deficit that had defeated predecessors. And he earned respect in world capitals, while becoming a leading proponent of international rules to govern currency flows.

In other words, Martin has already accomplished plenty. But ask Liberals, young and old, and they are as likely to wax lyrical about what the former minister can bring to the table in the future as well as what he's done in the past. Bardish Chagger, president of the University of Waterloo Young Liberals Association, sees Martin's experience translating into better economic prospects for the country. "He's proven he can run the country's finances," she offers, "so I think Canada's economic situation will be better with Martin." Toronto MP John Godfrey believes Martin is a closet social activist and predicts an expansionist agenda. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "When the government came in, we did absolutely what we had to do - all that nasty stuff. Now I think Canadians are anxious for adventure, and I think Paul's got a wider vision, bigger goals."

Most often mentioned, however, is how Martin differs from Chrétien. For all that the Prime Minister has delivered to the party - three majority governments above all - the common view is that he has become autocratic, inattentive and unconcerned about the opinions of others. Describing Chrétien's relationship with caucus, one disgruntled backbencher once remarked, "He sure walks fast" - meaning that the PM seldom wastes time hobnobbing with fellow Liberal parliamentarians. Martin, by contrast, has devoted the past dozen years to criss-crossing the country, chatting up party activists, attending socials, and bringing star wattage to nomination meetings.

The work has paid off. While it barely registers as an issue with Canadians, Martin's pledge to reform Parliament by allowing more free votes and routinely consulting backbench MPs in the formulation of policy is a big winner with Liberals. Others before him have made similar promises, only to develop amnesia once they attained power. But Martin's supporters in caucus find hope in the way he ran Finance. "He's a people person," says Jerry Pickard, Liberal MP for Chatham-Kent Essex. "He listens to people carefully even when he doesn't agree with them. I've never been disappointed in taking a constituent or a friend from my riding to Paul Martin and discussing issues." Pickard recalls how he and other MPs once lobbied the finance minister for a tax break on environmentally friendly green fuels. Martin put it into his budget. "Commercial Alcohols [an ethanol producer] would not be in Chatham had not Paul Martin been open to ideas other than his own or from the department," he says.

Martin insists he is genuine about addressing what he calls the "democratic deficit." He notes that at Finance he initiated a policy of extensive public pre-budget consultations. Previously, budgets had been secretive affairs, with only a chosen few, usually business interests, invited to pitch their case to the minister. The process was neater, but it had a major drawback, says Martin: no opportunity for the stakeholders to take ownership of the budget, or for the government to prepare the country for painful measures. "It's the MPs who people elect, it's the MPs people relate to, and it's the MPs who are going to have to sell government decisions," he told Maclean's. "If you don't make the MP the centre of your decision making, then you'll never build the consensus government needs to be successful."

In one sense, Martin is using an age-old political trick - tell people what they want to hear, but keep your options open. He has hinted to Aboriginal leaders that he would be more amenable to their views on self-government, but has given no indication of what he would do. He tells students and teachers that more funds must be allotted to education, without giving an idea of how much Ottawa would contribute. He promises more power to MPs, but unveils no concrete proposals for institutional change. He will support the Kyoto accord, but tries to allay fears in the Alberta oil patch by declaring that the government must first offer an implementation plan before ratification. He proposes a new deal for cities, but won't say how he'll intervene in what is an exclusive provincial jurisdiction. Wait, say his aides, the policy fillers to the Martin vision will become clearer as his leadership campaign nears the finish line.

There may be no need to wait. Many already view Martin as the new face of Liberalism. Alliance Leader Stephen Harper has indicated he will be shifting his attacks away from Chrétien to Martin. He already devoted a large segment of a Sept. 20 speech in Halifax to mocking the government's "messiah in waiting." And Tony Dionisio, head of Toronto's Universal Workers Union, Local 183, and a supporter of Brian Tobin until the former industry minister quit politics in January in tacit acknowledgement of Martin's inevitability, suggested it would be a "nice gesture" if other contenders simply capitulated.

Martin's stay at the top, if he wins, may be relatively brief - he is, after all, 64. But his influence on the party could be long-lasting, says one key strategist in his campaign. His view, that the country's ability to create an economically just society flows directly from its ability to create wealth, is now generally accepted within the party, and by most Canadians. "He's been instrumental in repositioning the Liberal party at the very epicentre of Canadian politics," says the strategist. "He's so popular because there's no light between him and the party." As campaign slogans go, "the party c'est moi" may lack a certain democratic appeal, not to mention modesty. But, for better or worse, it comes pretty close to describing the symbiotic relationship Paul Martin has doggedly built with Liberals.

Maclean's October 7, 2002