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Paul Martin
Leader, Liberal Party of Canada

"Come hell or high water" is Paul Martin's favourite phrase, he once told Elm Street magazine. The prime minister used it this winter as he pledged to change the culture of cronyism in Ottawa that let the sponsorship scandal happen. He also used it when he vowed to defeat the federal deficit, shortly after becoming Jean Chrétien's finance minister in 1993.

Civil servants and lovers of Trudeau-style social programs thought "hell" a pretty accurate description of the cost-cutting that followed. Martin rolled back government spending to 1951 levels, cutting costs at some departments in half. Five years into his job, he announced Canada's first federal surplus in 27 years.

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That businesslike slashing, followed by a 10-year-plan to reduce personal and corporate taxes by $100 billion, seems at odds with his father's assessment that his son was situated to the "far left of the Liberal party."

Paul Martin Sr. certainly leaned in that direction during his time as a cabinet minister under four Liberal prime ministers, though, thanks in no small measure to his son.

Paul Martin Jr.
Paul Martin Jr. as a young boy growing up in Windsor, Ont.  

When the current prime minister came down with polio in 1946, at age eight, the disease left more of an impact on the Canadian medicare system than it did on the boy. Martin was so shaken by seeing his only son so ill (the boy couldn't speak for a year) that he resolved to push his cabinet colleagues to fund health care for everyone, no matter their income.

After earning degrees in philosophy and law, Martin Jr. toyed with the idea of working in the Third World. But he had married Sheila Cowan by then, and the first of their three sons was on the way. So he accepted a job with Power Corp. president Maurice Strong, moved to Montreal, and launched a successful 30-year career in business.

He and a partner mortgaged everything to buy Canada Steamship Lines for about $180 million in 1981, with Martin betting he could adapt fast-unloading technology from the Great Lakes for use around the world. He won that bet, but it wasn't easy. "Politics doesn't take guts," he said years later. "Staring bankruptcy in the face every morning takes guts."

By 1998, he owned 37 companies, operating everything from ships to apartment buildings to a waterslide complex. That kind of reach hasn't been a comfortable fit with federal politics, which he entered in 1988. There are files he can't touch because of conflicts of interest (though he has handed over ownership to his sons) and he has been accused of putting profit before patriotism by registering dozens of CSL's ships overseas to save money on taxes and wages.

 Paul Martin Jr. with his young family
  Paul Martin Jr. with his young family and his parents at a Canada Steamship Lines event in the late 1970s.

Yet perhaps something of the small-l liberal remains. A Saturday Night reporter once asked Martin for his philosophy of life. "Kurt Vonnegut once described life as a peephole. Scary and black," he replied. "I must say that struck me... The incredible importance of my life is a brief speck of time, and nothing more. And so, how do you use that brief time? You use that to do stuff to try to make things better, to make life better."

Martin honed a plan to do that after Chrétien booted him from cabinet in 2002. Martin promised to bring more democracy to the House of Commons so that its decisions better reflected the desires of Canadians, to increase aid to cash-strapped cities, and to boost spending on education and on research and development.

Personally, he has a reputation as both a gentleman and a tantrum-thrower (over inadequate work, usually). He apparently doesn't hold a grudge, and values loyalty highly. His bitterness over Chrétien's determination to hang onto power has been portrayed as equal parts of two things: rage at its unfairness, and ambition to make his mark on government.

Paul Martin holding the flag
As his cabinet is sworn in on Dec. 12, 2003, Paul Martin stands holding the flag flown on Parliament Hill the day his father died in 1992. (CP file photo)  

That ambition is considerable. Many have attributed it to his father's three unsuccessful bids for the Liberal leadership. We do know that as early as 1979, Martin told his father he wanted to start preparing to be prime minister one day.

On Dec. 12, 2003, that day came. As his cabinet was sworn in at Rideau Hall, Prime Minister Paul Martin stood holding the Canadian flag that had flown at half-mast on Parliament Hill the day his father died in 1992.

Now there's a new ambition driving him: to hang onto the job he, and his father, sought for so long.

RELATED READING:

Juggernaut: Paul Martin's Campaign for Chrétien's Crown, by Susan Delacourt, published in 2003 by McClelland & Stewart.

Paul Martin: CEO for Canada?, by Murray Dobbin, published in 2003 by James Lorimer & Co.

Paul Martin: The Power of Ambition, by John Gray, published in 2003 by Key Porter.

Paul Martin: A Political Biography, by Robert Chodos, Rae Murphy and Eric Hamovitch, published in 1998 by Lorimer.

Friendly Dictatorship: Reflections on Canadian Democracy, by Jeffrey Simpson, published in 2001 by McClelland & Stewart.

Governing from the Centre:The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, by Donald Savoie, published in 1999 by University of Toronto Press.


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