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Profile of Paul Martin for The National

Reporter: Bob McKeown
Producer: Lynn Burgess
To air: June 22 or 23, 2004

Imagine how it feels to be Paul Martin.

He has succeeded at almost everything he's ever done. His entire adult life has essentially been spent preparing for one thing – becoming Prime Minister. Now, he may be just days away from seeing that dream obliterated by what could be one of the most stunning and personally humiliating reversals in Canadian electoral history.

  A teenaged Paul Martin Jr. at a Model U.N. function with his father, Paul Martin Sr.

Throughout this campaign, Martin has made politics look like the hard work it is, showing the public a side of him they've rarely seen before. You can sense the uncertainty. You can see the sweat as the election that was supposed to fulfill his destiny has instead revealed some perhaps-fatal flaws.

Whatever he's accomplished politically, the fact is that Paul Martin doesn't much like politics. He doesn't always understand its nuances and rules, and has little patience for unruffling feathers or massaging egos.

You'd think that in a country that doesn't much like politicians these days, that might be an asset. But if that lack of acumen is sometimes a strength, it's far more often a liability, and given where he's come from, almost always a surprise.

When he landed the top job last December, it was more of a coronation than a contest. After years waiting in the wings, Paul Martin Jr. was finally where he'd known he'd be all along.

"From the time he got himself into politics in 1988, he was one of the golden boys," says biographer John Gray. "After 18 months in Parliament, he had the gall to contest the leadership against Chretien. And after that he was the, he was the heir apparent."

Gray's book, Paul Martin: The Power of Ambition, tells the story of a man impeccably prepared to be Prime Minister. Gray says for the first time in his career, Martin now finds himself in uncharted territory. "He just seemed to have wandered into the tar patch, hasn't he? Wherever he puts his feet down, it gets worse and worse. "He must be the most surprised guy in Canada."

Surprised especially because Martin has long plotted his political course to avenge history. His father, Paul Martin Sr., also sought to be prime minister but failed, losing first to St. Laurent, Pearson, then by a large margin to a little-known upstart named Pierre Trudeau.

"I do think that his father's experience as having been passed over essentially for prime minister would have to be echoing somewhere in Paul Martin's psyche," says Lisa Young, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

If history repeats itself and Martin doesn't win this election, she says it will be a cruel twist in a story that's been likened to the stuff of Greek myth or Shakespearean drama.

"I think he's borne a mantle of expectations because of being part of a political family, because of his father's role in politics," Young says. "There really has been a tremendous quest for power for a very long time. And to have come so close, to have expected this for so many years, and then to have it snatched away in the course of a 30-day campaign, would certainly be very difficult for anyone, but particularly somebody who has nurtured this ambition for decades."

 When Paul Martin Jr. was elected to represent the federal riding of LaSalle-Emard in 1988, his father was at his side.
  When Paul Martin Jr.
was elected in the riding of LaSalle-Emard in 1988, his father was at his side.

Right from the start in Windsor, Ont., it seemed no other future was possible for Paul Edgar Philippe Martin. His father, Paul Sr., was one of Canada's most famous public figures, a star cabinet minister and one of the architects of the nation's health-care program. His mother Nell was an anglophone, but his Dad insisted young Paul attend francophone schools.

Here, his sister told biographer Gray, his interests and inclinations showed up early. "He was bright enough to get by. There are all kinds of people who are bright enough to get by and he got by. And he loved girls, you know, loved to party."

It was a theme to be continued at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, where Paul Jr. devoted himself, not to academics or student politics, but to sports. He was popular and outgoing and known to everyone as his father's son.

"Paul Martin's father... had to many this disconcerting habit of phoning very early in the morning," says Richard Alway, a college classmate. "Very few calls would come at that hour, perhaps none, so yes, everybody knew who that was. Mr. Martin kept in very close contact with his son during the years he was at university."

Alway remembers tagging along one day to meet Paul Martin Sr.

"I was particularly struck at the end of the meeting as father and son said good-bye and embraced and kissed. And this struck me as an amazing degree of demonstrative intimacy between father and son, something that in that day and age, you didn't see very much at all. And marked the particularly close connection between the two."

Eventually Paul Jr, accomplished athlete and ladies' man, set his sights on the girl next door ... literally. Sheila Cowan was a neighbourhood beauty and family friend. They married and then the newly graduated lawyer turned his attention to a career.

He started with an influential contact indeed – one of many in the years to come. Martin called on Maurice Strong, CEO of the Power Corporation and close associate of his father. He suggested he was thinking of working in the Third World, according to his biographer.

"And Maurice Strong said, 'Why would the Third World want a freshly minted lawyer from Ontario? Why don't you have some experience with the real world? Come and work for me.' "Everyone should have such a break," says Gray.

Martin rose quickly through the Power Corp hierarchy. He became a corporate trouble-shooter, downsizing a company here, disposing of one there. And he was a natural. At the age of just 35, he was appointed president of Canada Steamship Lines.

But all the while, he confided to his parents, what he really wanted was to run for office.

As always, Paul Martin Sr, had some advice for his son.

"He has the bug, I am afraid," the career politician wrote in his diary at around this time. "My reply has been, 'Wait until you are older...You are doing so well as a businessman. Become firmly established as a man of commerce. They will come after you instead of you pursuing them... In six or seven years, you will be a tower of a man. You can do what I failed to do.'"

And so Paul Jr. continued his corporate climb, soon gaining a seat on the Power Corp board.

Martin had demonstrated he had the right stuff to accumulate corporate power; he was about to show he could also make himself very rich. Power Corporation decided to sell Canada Steamship Lines. It asked the CEO, Martin, to find a buyer. He did: The buyer would be himself.

He lined up a partner, borrowed tens of millions of dollars and took over CSL. Critics have styled it as a sweetheart deal, the product of his connections; supporters say it's an example of Paul Martin the self-made man. Either way, it's part of the Martin mythology.

"Everyone assumes Paul Martin Jr. inherited a pack of dough," says Gray. "He didn't. His father was a very poor boy, came from a very poor family.... He in the end had a parliamentary salary, but a rich man by the measure of his son, he was not."

By the time the younger Martin finally tossed his hat into the political ring in 1988, he was an extraordinarily successful businessman and a multi-millionaire. His declaration of assets on entering Parliament included ownership of dozens of companies around the world, 33 ships, office buildings, apartment blocks and even movie theatres.

He may well be the wealthiest Canadian prime minister ever.

But according to what his wife Sheila once told Gray, Paul Martin not only knows his strengths but also his weaknesses.

"I said to her, 'Look, I read somewhere that his favourite food is Kraft Dinner. Is this really true?' And she said, 'Oh yeah, it's absolutely true.' The problem was that he never learned how to cook it," Gray recalls. "He wasn't self-sufficient enough to do this. She said he never really babysat the kids because he was too nervous. I mean he wasn't confident in dealing with the kids in that way."

 The young businessman takes some time out to land a big one.
  The young businessman takes some time out to land a big one.

Asked to reconcile the successful businessman with the nervous father incapable of making a convenience food renowned for its foolproof instructions, Gray replies: "It's easy enough...you don't worry about the things that are essentially not overwhelmingly important to you. You can do the things that really matter. And I guess he just figured he didn't ever really give a damn about Kraft Dinner."

When Martin celebrated his first election victory in Montreal – not in tony Westmount, where he lived, but in the working-class riding of Lasalle-Emard – it was obvious he would follow his father into cabinet very soon.

Richard Mahoney went to work for Martin and says his new boss arrived on Parliament Hill already a natural leader.

"He learned some of those leadership skills from his time in the private sector and that helped him hit the ground running when he got, you know arguably the most important job in Mr. Chretien's cabinet."

But was there also a downside to his business competence, once that led him to have less patience with the hand-shaking, baby-kissing side of politics?

"Yeah, I think that's right," says Mahoney. "Paul is a very warm and engaging individual... Most people who come to know him quite like him and stay friends with him and loyal to him. But he's not a natural sort of, kind of hail-fellow well-met, who loves to small talk all the time.

"He didn't have a lot of patience – or really, a lot of interest is the better word – in those kind of things. And sometimes they are important in terms of the contest that is political life."

Biographer John Gray agrees.

"He doesn't like politics, you know. He doesn't like the tradeoffs that one makes to satisfy political concerns...

"Chretien and Mulroney could get together and talk for hours, just about politics. You know, about elections, about people and personalities. Martin's not interested and he doesn't care about that side of politics. He cares about policy."

There would be no shortage of policy to occupy Martin when he became Jean Chretien's finance minister in 1993, facing the most dire fiscal crisis in recent Canadian history.

He actually had to be talked into accepting the Finance portfolio; he thought it was a dead end job. But he soon earned a reputation as a tough taskmaster and a voracious consumer of both information and different points of view.

"There was more than one occasion when the phone rang in my apartment in Ottawa or back here in Toronto at home even on a weekend at eight in the morning and it would be Mr. Martin having read something and wanting us to talk about it," recalls Mahoney. "I of course said I was up and reading the same document right then and there, as I grabbed, scrambled for it and tried to read it quickly."

Barry Campbell was a Liberal MP and in the mid-1990s, the finance minister's parliamentary secretary. He says if there's one thing Paul Martin loves, it's a spirited argument. His staff referred to them as 'beatings'.

"Sycophants didn't last very long around Paul Martin," says Campbell. "If you were a yes man, he was uncomfortable. He wanted opinions. He wanted an argument."

Mahoney says Martin would have more respect for someone who disagreed with him, an unusual trait in a politician at that level.

"What tends to happen with politicians is they get to be so busy and so driven and so powerful and they've got people working for them and public servants and aides and so forth, that people tend to sort of protect them a little bit from having to be put in a position where you actually say to the guy, 'I think you're completely wrong, sir or ma'am,'" says Mahoney.

But Martin was known for liking people who did just that, says his former staffer.

He became much more widely known – and in many parts, admired – as the finance minister who had done what none before him could: slay the dreaded deficit racked up during the Trudeau and Mulroney years. His years in business had clearly prepared him to be a single-minded dispenser of budgetary tough love.

Is that also what it takes to be prime minister?

"Being a party leader is all about generating excitement, generating vision, about being on television, about you know portraying an image of one's self in a very positive, charismatic kind of way," says political scientist Lisa Young. "And I'm not sure that business is necessarily the best kind of preparation for that."

And then there were the internal party battles, partly caused by those closest to the man longing to be the prime minister his father never had the chance to become.

Though Jean Chretien relied heavily on Paul Martin's fiscal policy to win three successive terms, he wasn't about to make it easy for his heir apparent. When Martin finally ascended to the throne last December, after a long and bitter handover, his advisors had already settled on a take-no-prisoners policy. Chretien loyalists were to be eliminated, especially those with the temerity to challenge for the leadership.

Sheila Copps, the only other leadership candidate to stick it out to the bitter end, was given the cold shoulder, then sent packing. John Manley was out too; Allan Rock gone. Paul Martin was ruthless, and with an election on the horizon, politically na�ve, some say. Former colleagues who could have helped are now watching to see if he'll fail.

"I think that some kind of siege mentality set in where the people around Martin were fighting against the Liberal party establishment," says political scientist Young. "There's resentment that plays into this. I think there is a degree of arrogance here as well... They really believe that the party is now theirs and they owe no loyalty to the people that delivered a decade of majority government in the past."

Michel C. Auger, a political columnist with the Journal de Montreal, recalls a quip Jean Chretien used about his would-be successor: "Martin is very good about policy. He's not as good about politics."

Auger sees Martin's first months as prime minister as a kind of leadership litmus test.

"There's a phrase in English that doesn't have an equivalent in French about having the royal jelly. And I don't think you know if someone has the royal jelly until they're actually seated in the chair."

Despite the fact that Martin had been born into Liberal political royalty, and plotted his rise to the prime minister's chair from the age of 20, the jelly hasn't been very visible to date, in Auger's view.

"I think they plotted the rise to 24 Sussex much in much too great detail and didn't plan what they would do once they got to 24 Sussex. I think there was a bit of a conception that after that, it would be easy. He would win this election easily, and then would do the things he wanted to do.

"Uh, it didn't happen that way."

Indeed, it didn't happen that way. Not yet. Perhaps, it now appears, not ever.

This should have been Paul Martin's political honeymoon. Instead he's found himself – perhaps for the first time – in the position of trying to recover from mistakes and missed opportunities.

He promised Canadians he'd get to the bottom of government mismanagement before he called an election, then went to the polls anyway. He pledged more democracy within the Liberal party, then pushed aside popular candidates in Vancouver and Ontario to appoint his own favourites. He sent ministers to heckle Stephen Harper, accomplishing little but a flow of sympathy for the Conservative leader and an opening for caustic one-liners.

And of course, there's the sponsorship scandal.

It didn't help that Martin took office just weeks before Auditor General Sheila Fraser's bombshell exploded in February of 2004. The alleged waste of hundreds of millions funnelled to Liberal-linked ad executives in Quebec really belonged to Chretien, but it's been Paul Martin's political football to handle – and fumble, according to Lisa Young.

"Part of the problem here, I think, is that he didn't choose either the strategy of defending what the government had done or the strategy of really going after the Chretien government. I mean he seemed to start out that way by recalling Alfonso Gagliano as ambassador [to Denmark], setting up all these inquiries, but he never managed to muster up the tone of outrage that he really needed to have in order to distinguish himself and to make it clear that he was in no way culpable."

Auger believes the sponsorship fiasco has been a double whammy for Martin in Quebec and a crippling blow to the Liberals' hopes of retaking the province.

"The scandal itself is a big thing all across Canada," he said. "But there's an added dimension in Quebec. People got mad at seeing that... a lot of money was spent literally trying to buy their allegiance by putting flags everywhere. And Paul Martin did not realize that it made people mad."

This campaign has revealed much that Paul Martin seems not to have fully understood – in particular, how a lot of Canadians feel after a decade of Jean Chretien, and their apparent willingness to hold Martin responsible for it.

And if he didn't have the political instincts to see that coming, neither did the advisers who helped him depose Chretien, according to biographer John Gray.

"They aren't the people who should be running him as a prime minister," he argues. "They're the people who killed the king. Once you're in the business of killing a king, it's hard to shift focus and say now we want this guy to be king and we think he should behave this way."

Paul Martin Sr. was once called "the greatest prime minister Canada never had." Now, Paul Martin Jr. is in the fight of his political life. Theirs is the story of two generations – both surely fit for the highest office – a father and the son who set out to accomplish what he could not.

Will this story be a triumph or a tragedy? The ending will be written on June 28.


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