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Reality Check

Whatever became of Paul Martin? By John Gray, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | January 24, 2006 | More Reality Check

Liberal Leader Paul Martin after conceding defeat in Lasalle, Quebec, Monday, Jan. 23. (CP Photo/Fred Chartrand)  
Not even Liberals shed many tears for the departure of Paul Martin. When he told them on election night that the end had come, there were few cries of protest. By that time, it was clear that the Martin era was over.

Yet it was hard to believe that this was the man who had become Liberal leader little more than two years ago with the support of more than 90 per cent of his party. He was the most popular politician in the country.

But about Paul Martin and his brief career as prime minister there must be a certain sadness. As finance minister he was brilliant, a triumph. But triumph does not figure in the description of his time at 24 Sussex Drive.

In his prime, Paul Martin talked as other politicians did not. His conversation was an excited and exciting tumble of ideas – ideas about things that might be done, or should be done, or should not be.

His eight and a half years as finance minister must have been the happiest time of his life, for in those days he rubbed shoulders with the world and it was his job to contemplate what could be done to make it all better.

He had always been drawn to the world beyond Canada and as finance minister he was constantly confronted by what he described as one of the greatest questions of our age: How is the world going to govern itself?

It was a question that pressed on him constantly because he was caught up in the struggle of how to extricate Canada�s economy from woeful deficit.

Other nations were trapped in the same descending spiral and, if there needed to be further reminder of peril, there was New York and Osama bin Laden.

His contemplation of the disaster led him down unexpected paths:

"We, within our borders, recognize that we have to have a basic level of welfare for the poorest of the poor in our country. We�ve got to recognize sooner or later that the same thing has to apply internationally. …

"I guess my own belief is that, at some point, 50 or 60 years from now, somebody is going to look back and say I don�t believe that they thought back at the turn of the 21st century that the solution to Africa�s problem was some kind of public and private charity as opposed to a fundamental restructuring of how the world governs itself. I think that, in 50 or 60 years, they are going to look back as if we were, you know, coming out of the caves."

(It is interesting to remember that the Martin who floated the idea of a world welfare system was the same Martin who arbitrarily ended the federal government�s responsibility for welfare in Canada. But who was it who said that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds?)

That earlier Paul Martin, the man who was prepared to dream large and persuade the world of his dream, was lost somewhere along the way. His promise had always been that the sacrifices Canadians made for his fight against the deficit would be recompensed. But, he said, there had to be sacrifices in the short term because the alternative was that Canada would be stricken by the Argentine disaster, the Mexican peso, or the Philippine whatever.

True enough, we escaped those ills, but our reward was the savaging of the unemployment insurance system (henceforth to be called employment insurance), health care, post-secondary education, social housing, welfare and all the other costs of the Martin miracle. Somehow the consolation was a corporate tax cut whose dimensions had never before been seen.

In spite of the confusion of those days before he became prime minister it was possible still to believe that the Paul Martin of his own dreams – whatever they were – would emerge when he had finally slain the dragon of Jean Chrétien.

What a sad delusion. He continued as the prisoner of advisers whose inadequacy is truly astonishing. They were talented in killing the king, but they had no idea how to rule the kingdom. They took their own guidance from polls and the calculation of political advantage.

As they proceeded, the man with a thousand ideas could attach himself to none except the imperatives of the polls. His priorities were beyond number. He had once sold Canada on an agenda of extraordinary change, but whatever he had once valued apparently evaporated.

Before he moved into the Langevin Block, his leadership election team had set out to debate and refine more than two dozen "policy tables." He would move into office with policy at the ready. Yet it soon became apparent that, in spite of the tables there was no policy.

He promised great changes in health care, in federal-provincial relations, in parliamentary democracy, in relations with the United States and in relations with the rest of the world.

At health care he threw money to satisfy the premiers because the premiers made a fuss; with the United States he flipped and he flopped on missile defence as he had done earlier on the question of troops for Iraq. He might have succeeded with child care but it was too little too late. He has become a man driven by the dubious wisdom of the headlines and the abject counsel of those who made Martin their careers.

It is hard now to remember that in the days before he became prime minister it was freely predicted that Martin would lead the Liberals to a victory of landslide proportions. For Martin himself there must be a terrible sadness in his fall from a dream of great triumph to a desperate scramble for mere survival.

That sadness must be compounded by the realization that along the way he lost the faith of many people who had looked to him for change – change that was promised in that tumbling jumble of ideas and hopes and values, the like of which we do not seen our politicians.

The wonder is, what happened to those ideas and hopes and values? And what happened to the man?

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